Afolabi Elebiju is the founding Principal (Managing Partner) of LeLaw Barristers & Solicitors, a niche commercial law firm in Lagos, Nigeria. With over 26 years of experience spanning diverse areas of corporate and commercial law practice, Afolabi is versatile and also widely recognised as one of Nigeria’s leading tax regulatory lawyers. He started his legal career at Olaniwun Ajayi LP, in April 1995 and briefly ran his own practice Stirling Lloyd before joining Arthur Andersen (later KPMG Professional Services) as a Semi-Senior Consultant in the Business Regulatory Services (BRS) Group of the Tax Division in 1998. Prior to leaving as Senior Manager in 2006 for further studies in the USA, he was seconded to the Glasgow offices of Andersen Legal member firm, Dundas & Wilson in 2001 and also briefly ran KPMG’s Executive Selection and Training (EST) Group in 2004.
Upon return to Nigeria in September 2007, he joined Templars as the first Partner and Head of the Tax and Regulatory Practice, growing the same over a five-and-a-half-year period. He subsequently went in-house, as General Counsel with African Capital Alliance, Nigeria’s pioneer private equity firm, and thereafter started LeLaw full-time in 2015. Over his career, Afolabi’s clients include global market leaders, Nigerian blue chips, high net-worth individuals, and public sector/international agencies. He has also been actively involved in contributing to legal regulatory business discourse through diverse publications (solo and joint) and speaking opportunities at different fora.
Afolabi obtained his two second-class upper degrees from Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), and also two LLMs in Corporate and Commercial Law (University of Lagos) and in International Finance (Harvard Law School). Amongst many other professional affiliations, he is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Taxation of Nigeria (FCTI), a member of the International Fiscal Association (IFA) and of the Congress of Fellows at the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies in Austria.
How would you describe your job to a ten-year-old?
Wow, that is an interesting question! Well, I help my clients succeed in the marketplace, helping them achieve their business goals. I put my legal and business consulting skills at the disposal of my clients to give them a competitive edge in their businesses. We create solutions that save costs, identify and sidestep potential problems and also help them with dispute resolution when necessary.
How or why did you become a lawyer?
Growing up I was hugely influenced by the prestige attached to the profession, the awe with which lawyers were held. They all appeared very smart and knowledgeable; seeing their advocacy (which then appeared to be all that lawyers do!) was also exciting. When I was very young, I used to talk a lot and people would think I was kind of precocious and this boy talks like a lawyer. So in a way, the idea began to take root. My Dad, however, wanted me to study medicine, but I unilaterally changed my O’Level subjects from Science to Arts just before our WAEC registration once I realised I was not likely to pass Chemistry, Physics and Mathematics.
This proved to be a really good decision because I passed all my papers in flying colours except (you guessed correctly), Maths! Although I applied for Law in 1983, and got a decent JAMB score, my choice of University (not appreciating that catchment area would have boosted my chances), amongst other factors, saw me changing my course and university of first choice to Physical Education at University of Ife.
I unsuccessfully tried twice to transfer to the Law Faculty, so I completed my B.A. (Ed.), and went to serve in Bauchi State. During NYSC. I applied to the University of Ibadan in 1988 which then only admitted only graduate students via direct entry but I was unsuccessful. Subsequently, then Minister of Education, Prof. Jubril Aminu announced (in 1989) that graduates would no longer be allowed to apply to study Law, Medicine and Pharmacy.
However, whilst I was teaching in a secondary school in my Ilaje/Ese-Odo LGA in Ondo State, I had an epiphany and decided I must go back to OAU to study Law. So I took the JAMB exams like a secondary student, and gained admission to OAU in 1990, albeit Law had just been made a 5-year programme. I then got very lucky because Prof. Fafunwa became Minister and changed the no-graduates admissions policy, whilst OAU immediately upgraded graduates like me who wrote JAMB, to Year 2 Law as if we were direct entry students. The icing on the cake was that I saved two years thereby – having joined the last 4 year set in Year 2! The rest is history. Going back to study law is one of the best decisions I have taken in my life. I am so grateful for the epiphany I had which strengthened my resolve to go back to the University. My Dad had become a retiree who nevertheless supported me.
So you got into a lot of arguments growing up?
Yes. I enthusiastically engaged in conversations and arguments. I did not think anything I said was a big deal, but they happened to amuse and impress much older people; sometimes they will draw me into arguments just to have fun.
For how long have you been in the profession and how has the experience been?
This is my 26th year. I became a lawyer in March 1995 and I have been practicing ever since. It has been extremely interesting. I love the analytical rigour that comes with the training and practice of law. It is beautiful to read or hear the reasoning and analysis of lawyers on opposing sides of a case. The outcomes of very similar cases could be different because of the power of logic brought to bear on the arguments. You are impressed by the depth of reasoning of eminent judges, Nigerian and foreign, when you read law reports. The fulfillment that comes from helping clients who depend on you, achieve results is incomparable; this challenges you to keep widening, deepening and updating your knowledge base. I have also been privileged to work in some of the finest professional services firms in Nigeria (Olaniwun, Andersen/KPMG, Templars, ACA) where exposure to demanding but collegial work environment (exemplified by brilliant colleagues and mentor-supervisors); and quality client work combined to ensure that there was no dull moment. All this has made me really enjoy being a lawyer. I am having as much fun at LeLaw, thanks to my colleagues and our clients.
Tell us about being in a courtroom for the first time?
I started my career at Olaniwun Ajayi. The very first day that I resumed, I and my OAU classmate and friend Simisola Ososami (now Simisola Adejumo) accompanied the Managing Partner, Dr. Konyin Ajayi (now Professor Konyin Ajayi SAN) to the Court of Appeal. It was so memorable because of the advocacy of both lead counsel: Mr. Ademola Akinrele (now Mr. Akinrele SAN), was for the Respondent. The appeal was about a performance bond: Nigeria LNG v ADIC, and we won. My first solo appearance was probably to move a non-contentious motion (like an extension of time) or to get an adjournment. As you go to court regularly, your confidence develops. I was going to court at least three times a week, so I pretty quickly became a confident lawyer.
Aside from being in court say three times a week, what was your daily schedule like?
Very interesting. Olaniwun was (and still is), a very busy practice so we sometimes worked late in the office when clients’ circumstances required. However, I was also hungry to learn as much as I can and as fast as possible. So I often stayed back when I did not have to, read old files (opinions, litigations, etc), and also current files that other colleagues were working on. I volunteered for work as much as there was an opportunity, apart from my already assigned tasks; the huge library challenged me to develop my research skills, and over time I became the unofficial librarian. We had Friday (and sometimes unscheduled) firm meetings where novel or complex issues in particular matters were discussed. The ability to contribute at these meetings, especially by defending your views, can be a gauge of how well you are developing.
On a typical Friday, I would (on my own volition, and being then a young bachelor), stay back in the office overnight to read and write, sleep a few hours then keep working before going home say 4 p.m. on Saturday, and taking along the case files (or written arguments), law reports, etc with which to further prepare for court on Monday. I used to live in Navy Town when I started. If you needed to be in court you first had to resume in the office to pick the file, especially if the matter is at the Lagos High Court Igbosere (not too far from Olaniwun’s then office at 31 Marina). When you are back from court, you work on whatever required attention either on the matter, other forthcoming matters or pending solicitors work/advisory services. The practice comprised both litigation and solicitors work, and we were encouraged to do both. Eventually, my ‘schedule’ was influenced by habits I picked Professor Ajayi who was a consistent and avid reader and writer. I started keeping practice notes like him – after unfailingly reading the newest Part of Weekly Law Reports (NWLR) upon delivery to the office. Ultimately, I learned that you cannot write or really have much to contribute if you have not been reading; your daily habits and schedule is what will eventually tell how good a foundation you are building. I got lazy from time to time, but I still draw so much from what I learned during that very intense phase of my career that I also really enjoyed.
Do you still work weekends and late nights?
Well, yes as client and other professional commitments require, but also subject to family commitments. But with technology (laptops, online resources and all) you can work anytime and from home now; in those days there was no internet nor emails. I often work at home during weekends and some can be very busy. I told one of my colleagues that (19th February, 2021) last weekend was the most intense day I have had since I started LeLaw – I finalised draft client deliverables and about four thought leadership pieces (mine and my colleagues’ articles).
What is your favorite thing about being a lawyer?
My favorite thing about being a lawyer is when we are challenged with a very knotty client business issues and we able to deliver a fit for purpose solution; especially in situations when the client itself is not so optimistic. I love it when complex legal problems inspire/force us to look for solutions. I love problems that task us because they stretch us and therefore bring out the best in us.
If you were not a lawyer what other profession would have ventured into?
I would probably have become a writer; someone like Chinua Achebe and many other Nigerian literary giants, I read growing up. I wrote my first “novel” when I was a teenager but I did not publish it. However, I have done, and will continue to do, my modest writings (articles, case reviews, book reviews, chapter contributions, etc) on legal regulatory business issues. My interest in legal writing got fired up at Olaniwun Ajayi, and in my subsequent environments before LeLaw, writing was much encouraged as part of professional self-development/contribution to business discourse; my first article was published in a Sweet & Maxwell international legal journal in 1996.
Some highlights of my writing included initiating and keeping the ‘Taxspectives’ column running in ThisDay Lawyer between 2009 and 2015. Also, publication of my 2007 Harvard LLM Paper as a treatise in 2014: ‘Promoting Country Competitiveness Through Sectoral Reforms: Case Study of Nigerian Mobile Telecommunications Sector, 1999 – 2006’. Writing is also a great outlet for me; at a time when I almost lost my passion for the law as a result of some personal circumstances, writing was critical in helping me keep my passion. Finally, it is a very worthwhile venture for training junior colleagues, as well as helping with our marketing – they help showcase our capabilities. Finally, I have written free mentoring primers for students seeking university admission and for them to make the most of their tertiary education experience to make them market-ready upon graduation. I also might have remained a teacher (I still teach and mentor with passion), or ventured into being a socio-political commentator (if that will pay the bills), since I enjoy such discussions.
What was it like studying at the famous Harvard Law School?
Harvard was simply amazing. I saw excellence in everything, it was not just in words but in actions daily. Apart from leading academics who were regular faculty (and many of whom also had practice experience), HLS played host to leading practitioners/regulators who came to teach as adjunct professors or resource persons at workshops, seminars and conferences. There was a hardly a day that something major was not happening; the kind of event that may happen twice a year in Nigerian universities. I made amazing friends and today I have classmates from all over the world – a valuable network whom I could help if they have advisory needs in Nigeria and vice versa. I have no regrets taking a career break (and leaving my nuclear family whose sacrifice I greatly appreciated) to go and do my 2nd LLM in Harvard. Given HLS’ excellence mindset, I am sure they have even been upping the ante since I left in 2007.
As a lawyer practicing in Nigeria what are the challenges you face?
One is the fact that sometimes people either do not want to pay or they propose ridiculous amounts for services delivered. Meanwhile, it entails a lot of investment to deliver the quality they are entitled to expect from their counsel. Oftentimes, counsel’s intervention pays for itself, fees being a fraction of resultant cost savings including avoidable trouble. So it is very important to be clear about scope of services and agree the corresponding fees – best scenario is to document this in an engagement letter, and as much as possible do advance and/or milestone billing. The other issues are the usual infrastructural and regulatory challenges etc that cumulatively still make Nigeria a relatively inclement business environment. As a small business or startup, I imagine the real cost of the time and cost devoted to ensuring we have power, or migrating between internet service providers because of patchy quality. But we have keep pushing, as my bets are on Nigeria making it.
Talking about power, how has the recent increase in tariff affected your practice?
I would rather have public power than having to use a generator and incurring maintenance costs, getting diesel (with its upwardly trending prices), the noise, and other issues that come with generating your own power. We have taken it a bit further – I and some of my colleagues have written on diverse power sector issues; the most recent was a commentary on the capping of estimated bills. At the end of the day, power is a huge enabler and when we get it right in Nigeria, the economic benefit would be explosive. Power can do even more for the economy than what telecoms has done.
How long do you see yourself practicing for?
The way things are for me at the moment I will probably practice for as long as God gives me breath. But I envisage myself practicing till I die because the way the legal profession works is you want to practice till you die. What may happen though is that there could be some sort of retirement and semi-active practice towards the tail end if I grow very old, God willing. At the twilight stage, one can provide advice or consulting support on as needed basis to colleagues who wants to tap into one’s acquired experience and expertise. That way, one can continue to contribute and earn without exacting oneself too much. I also hope to do more writing that could yield income in the latter years. I expect to retire from LeLaw in due course. I am positive that it is my last professional bus stop.
Where would you like to take your practice?
On a path of sustainable growth, and long term profitability that consistently grows its people and reinforces its reputation for helping clients succeed in the market place. A firm that continues to punch above its weight in thought leadership. LeLaw is a young firm of about five years, at the moment I am the only partner hence my title (Principal). We are hoping to have more partners essentially from within (our Associates who take a long term view and grow to become partners) and from without – experienced persons who have appropriate fit with our vision and values, taking equity. I am hopeful that the practice will outlive and even before I retire, the next generation of leaders will be running it.
How do you relax when not analysing transactions?
Before the days of YouTube it was mostly reading non-legal literature (business/strategy, motivational books, biographies, news and sociopolitical articles, etc.) I also listen to music (especially Christian music), watch movies and soccer. I still do most of these, but quite bit through online resources, including spending time on some Whatsapp platforms I belong to (especially my OAU Alumni class). I also sometimes write and speak on non-legal content. I chill with family and friends (including having ‘life’ and Nigerian discussions; I also love travelling, but have not done much of that recently.