Olumide Akpata is a Partner at Templars, an integrated, full-service commercial law firm. He is the Head of the firm’s Corporate and Commercial Group. With over two decades’ experience in client advisory on various aspects of Nigerian Corporate and Commercial Law, he is a household name in the legal industry. He has been named a leading Mergers and Acquisition lawyer by IFLR 1000, the world’s foremost legal directory for ranking lawyers and law firms. Similarly, Chambers & Partners, a London-based legal profession ranking firm, described him as a well-known figure “frequently sought out for his experience in corporate restructurings and M&A mandates”. He has advised several local and international corporations on the impact of Nigerian Law on their operations and investments in the country. This often requires him to give extensive legal guidance on delicate matters such as labour practices, immigration compliance, corporate restructuring, company mergers, establishment of local subsidiaries, acquisitions administration, taxation and other regulatory issues. He has been invited to speak at numerous local and international conferences and seminars such as the Global Investment Immigration Summit and the United States Consulate-General’s International Human Rights Day celebration. He is the former Chairman of the Nigerian Bar Association Section on Business Law (NBA-SBL). He is the Vice-Chairman (West Africa) of the International Bar Association’s Africa Regional Forum. He is the Co-Convenor of the Medicine, Accountability and Law Conference (MAL) 2019. Olu is running to become President of the Nigerian Bar Association.
How did you decide to study law?
I like to think of myself as home bred. From nursery school all the way to Law School, I did it all here in Nigeria. I went to primary school in Warri and then transited to Kings College in Lagos. Subsequently, I studied Law at the University of Benin. I always wanted to be an entrepreneur like my mother, but my father, who was a medical doctor, encouraged me to study Law because I did very well in Literature, History and English. He felt that it was a safer bet for me to establish myself in a profession as a young man first and then embark on something entrepreneurial in the future. I decided to take his advice and I am eternally grateful to him. About 6 years ago, I was really struck by how significant the law profession is. If you think about it, lawyers have, as it were, a ring-side seat in virtually any field of human endeavour. The guys that come close to us are maybe the medical doctors. You need the law when you get married, build a home, start a business etc. It is truly is a privilege. I feel really proud to be a lawyer.
Biggest lesson from University?
One of the important things I learnt in University was how to manage freedom. As a sixteen-year-old, it was the first time that I was left to make my own decisions on what I did with my time and who I spent my time with. I could attend all the parties, join social clubs or any other group. I learnt how to take responsibility for my life on a whole new level. That experience prepared me to take responsibility for the latter part of my life and in my career.
What would you have said to a 21-year-old Olu Akpata graduating from the University of Benin?
I would have told myself to participate more in sports. Beyond the physical exercise, which is very beneficial, sports offer a great experience in learning to win within the rules of the game. I think that, in many ways, life is a contest and sports is a great training ground for future challenges. I was part of the supporters’ club in my house at school but I think I would have benefited more from participating more in sports. I think it would have honed my competitive spirit and helped me build more self-discipline. Secondly, I would tell myself to embrace challenges more and not to try to avoid the tough tasks. Lastly, I would tell myself to pay greater attention to self-development. What you learn for yourself is what you really own.
If you could change anything about you career, what would it be?
I would have spent more time in litigation. In the early days of our partnership, it was necessary for me to leave litigation and focus more on corporate law. It seemed necessary at the time, but in hindsight, I think I could have kept juggling both practices. For the avoidance of doubt however, I have no regrets. By the grace of God, I am satisfied with my career.
Early experience in the workplace?
I did my youth service in Kano State and then I worked with the late Dr Mudiaga Odje, SAN, in Warri. It was a privilege to be tutored by him. He taught me to be wary of shortcuts on the job because very often they don’t work. He taught me not to be afraid of hard work, and that you actually save time and heartache when you work hard.
Things that you have learnt in your career that are not taught on MBA programmes or Law School?
At 23, I joined my cousin and others to set up a law practice. As a result, I learnt the value of human relations very early. No man is an island. You need others and the partnership showed that. As an African proverb goes, “if you want to go fast, go alone but if you want to go far, go together.” I learnt how to respect divergent opinions and the humility to concede to another person’s view. I have had to learn to agree to disagree because I can be very opinionated. Sometimes, more than one person can be right. I have had to learn this and frankly speaking, these are not taught in the classroom. I have also learnt the value of respect for every individual. I learnt this from my mother and this has been a great philosophy in the marketplace.
What is your view on racial tensions in the United States of America and the pulling down of statues that are perceived to symbols of slavery?
Sometimes it can be a bit of a conflict for me because I like to see things in black and white. This is a struggle for the lawyer today because I find that most people dwell in the “grey areas”. I wish there could be absolute truth but that’s just not realistic in today’s society. As a legal counsel, I go with my instincts while seeking the advantage that I can find for my client in the law.
That said, I believe that you can always achieve justice via legal means. It may take a while, but legal means are always more effective than a resort to violence or other illegality. Again, I recall what my first and only boss said to me; avoid short cuts. Those pulling down statues in America are taking the short cut in my view. Similarly, those who advised President Buhari to fire the Former Chief Justice of the Federation, instead of following laid down procedure to investigate allegations against him, were taking a shortcut. Recently, the name of the prestigious Cass Business School in London was changed because of its association with a 17th century merchant and proponent of slave trade. Some people who felt offended by the name of the school were able to effect that change by pursuing legal means. This should be the way to go in every situation.
What is inspiring you to run for the position of the President of the NBA?
Like many fellow citizens, I am a frustrated Nigerian. The country is disintegrating right before our eyes. However, instead of complaining, I want to use my platform to make a difference. The legal profession in Nigeria is a microcosm of the larger Nigerian society and I believe that we encapsulate, in miniature, all the big issues that we complain about in our society. So, I think that if we can get our act together at the bar and lead by example, we can influence the larger society. I believe that as the Chairman of the NBA Section on Business Law I led an exemplary tenure. This is an opportunity to take things up a notch at a higher platform.
Greater influence, Mom or Dad ?
We are a close-knit family. My father was quite reticent but my mother was the dominant personality. I learnt a lot from her. I still remember things she told me as a young child. She often told me that I should be aware that everyone has a good and bad side. No one is perfect and so it’s best to enjoy the good and manage the bad. She taught me to manage relationships with family and friends that could have gone sour if I did not take her view of people to heart. My dad is ultra-contented. This is something that I am still learning. Sometimes I quarrel with his philosophy because contentment can be antithetical to ambition.
What type of music do you like?
I like it all. From Van Halen to Victor Uwaifo. I love music, love to party and love to dance. It is really a function of what I hear and how I feel. Phil Collins, Barry White, Luciano Pavarotti, Majek Fashek, Lucky Dube, Julio Iglesias, Anita Baker. The list goes on. I like them all.
Your interest in books?
I use to read novels a lot but I found that it was a bit of a distraction because I struggled to put down a book once I started reading. I like John Grisham but now I read more biographies. I enjoyed Femi Okunnu’s biography and the story of the march from Ibadan to Lagos to protest the defense pact with the United Kingdom was very inspiring.
Who’s your best boss ever and why?
I only had one boss for 3 years prior to setting up Templars and I have already spoken about him. He was an inspiring boss.
What has been the biggest lesson that you have learnt as a boss?
Just as my mother predicted, one of my biggest lessons as a boss is that everyone has a good and bad side. We are only human, remember. No one is perfect. I have therefore learnt to enjoy the good that people bring to a business and manage the bad aspects to the extent humanly possible. From my experience, I can say that it works most of the time. Obviously, there are those who are simply impossible to work with, but my default mindset, which I encourage others to have, is to give people the benefit of the doubt and a sort of clean slate at the start. Then ensure that you encourage them and provide them with the platform to prove themselves.
In your view what should be the role of businesses apart from making money?
Success means nothing if those around you are struggling. Business has an important role to play in sustaining society and contributing to national development. Indeed, government can’t do everything. That said, government has a role to play and that role should not be abdicated. I was very sad when the Secretary to the Government of the Federation Boss Mustapha said that it took the Covid-19 outbreak for him to realize how bad the health system is in Nigeria. That was a really low point for me in this crisis. We have got to work with government but we also need the government to be aware of its responsibility.
Your thoughts on public advocacy in driving change in society
I think it is very critical. At the NBA, we have a section on public interest and development law. I think it is such an important part of the NBA. We must be bold and speak truth to power. As lawyer, we must defend the rule of law. We cannot afford to sit idle while the rights of citizens are abused by those whose mandate is to protect them. Personally, I like to say it as it is and my courage is driven by experiences such as surviving cancer. Such encounters can strengthen your conviction about making a difference in the lives of the oppressed and less fortunate. As a society, we must promote this as a core societal value.
Things you value the most in a candidate when hiring?
First, I am attracted to smart brains. Intelligence is a turn-on for me. In Warri, we say, “if we have to send you to the market to buy sense, then we have a problem”. Secondly, I look for the attitude. Is the person open to learning? If not, that is a sign that the person cannot improve and that’s a red flag. Integrity is also a good point, but very often that’s something you find out after the fact.
Any interest in sports?
I am not so big on sports. I support the national football team but sadly, they haven’t been doing well recently so I am not thrilled often these days.
Best use of money ever for you.
Paying for someone’s education and medical bills. I think we are God’s vessels of blessing to the world. There’s no better feeling than helping people in this way.
What would be your biggest advice to President Buhari if you ran into him at a restaurant?
First, you won the election in 2015 on the strength of three basic promises – to fight corruption, to win the war against insecurity and to build our economy. You have less than three years to do this. Two, let the Vice President be more involved in the running of the country.
What would be your biggest ask for your sector (the legal profession)?
Use your best endeavors to ensure that the rule of law prevails always.
The Lunch Hour was over conducted Zoom because of the restrictions on public gathering due to the Covid-19 outbreak in Nigeria.