|Credits - Esqlaw.net|
Editor's note: Interview by Lere Fashola as originally posted on www.esqlaw.net
Your firm is relatively small in terms of number of employees or partners yet it leads the pack in most of the highly sophisticated finance transactions? Is there a deliberate decision to keep it small?
No, we have no decision to be or not be any particular size in absolute terms. The decision is to have enough lawyers to be able to service our clients superlatively in the practices and sectors that we choose to be in at any given time. We have always had enough lawyers for that. Size is perhaps also relative to the beholder. With more than 30 lawyers today, there are observers who would say that we are not small.
You got ISO certification about three years ago and I suspect you are the only Nigerian law firm with such certification. How did you come about this and what is its significance?
About 5 years ago, we thought that it was important to have consistency in the quality of our service as we were increasing in number. We explored options to address the issue. ISO 9001:2008 quality management system certification seemed to us both then and now to be a good way to do so
It means that an independent, reputable and proficient observer has rightly confirmed that we have a quality management system in place with standardized procedures and processes that ensure that we deliver quality service to our clients consistently.
You played an active role in the recent Power Privatisation exercise. How will you assess the exercise and what are some of the challenges that may likely arise from the exercise?
The exercise was a big step forward, but much work still needs to be done. Nigeria is the first country to have privatized its state-owned electricity assets fairly comprehensively all at one go rather than in stages spread over several years. The challenges are well-known. Many of the privatized businesses are still finding their feet. They do not have enough gas, there are issues with losses (both technical and commercial), the grid is still weak and a number of acquirers are very highly leveraged. After nearly two years, the average consumer still does not get much electric power from the grid.
I have also seen your contributions in some of the most celebrated M&A deals in Nigeria. What trend can you identify in this area and how are you helping your clients to mitigate risks?
M&A activity will continue to grow as more opportunities emerge and the stock of competent managers available becomes deeper and broader. As the Nigerian economy expands, M&A deal sizes will increase. We help our clients to mitigate the risks by working with them and their counterparties creatively and with speed to develop viable deal structures, regulatory support and bespoke documentation, and do thorough “due diligence” investigations.
You recently joined the ALN which is a network of lawyers in East Africa. Why the link with EA.
The ALN is not “a network of lawyers in East Africa”. It started in East Africa but has always been pan-African in outlook. It is a network of independent top-tier African business law firms. Its core features of independence, business and Africanness resonate very loudly with us. Business across African countries has been growing and has a huge future. An organization of lawyers that is set to ride on that growth should be attractive to every lawyer.
Can you give us some general information about your practice in Nigeria?
Our main practices are corporate, banking, capital markets, intellectual property, tax, employment and disputes. We engage in these practices across sectors of the economy such as electricity, oil-and-gas, financial institutions, logistics, consumer products, telecommunications media and technology, and real estate]
Who are your clients, and what type of issues do you help them with?
They are an eclectic lot. We have leading global multinationals, continental giants, state-owned enterprises, leading indigenous groups and start-ups. We do not have a special preference for either public sector, established or foreign clients. We are comfortable with anyone who is decent, whose economics makes sense to us from a fee-charging standpoint and whose work involves our practices, sectors and issues.
We advise and represent our clients on business law deals, fights and questions of all kinds and sizes, and, if we may say so, revel in the ones that are creative, complex or critical – ideally, the ones that are at once creative, complex and critical. We certainly cannot do every kind of work and absolutely have no wish to.
What are some of the entry-points for businesses who haven’t worked in Nigeria before but would like to?
Businesses that can ride on Nigeria’s demographics – most obviously food and other “fast-moving consumer goods” — are perhaps the most promising. In the long-run they are likely to do well regardless of what the political situation may be. Businesses in regulated industries – for example, financial services, telecommunications, oil and gas and electricity – are also likely to do well because the regulators have been working hard to impose discipline on them.
What are some of the key considerations for such a move?
Fortitude and creativity are important. In Nigerian business life, it is easy to get discouraged by early failures and there are often no pre-set practices or rules. One has to be resilient, and one often has to make the practices and rules up as one goes along.
To what extent has the involvement of foreign business investors led to the strengthening of legal institutions in Nigeria?
Only to a very limited extent; Legal institutions are to a significant degree also wielders of political power. Their destiny has therefore understandably always been far more in the hands of Africans than in the hands of non-Africans.
How does corruption affect business interests in Nigeria?
Corruption is deeply toxic and discouraging. Lawyers are its biggest victims. It makes lawyers, and lawyering, irrelevant. Why hire a lawyer or care to go into the minutiae of law when you can bribe somebody to get to the result that you seek?
How does the difficulty of exit affect investing in Nigeria?
I am not sure that there is a difficulty of exiting. The law allows bona fide investors freely to repatriate their income and their sales proceeds. There is no guarantee of a favourable exchange rate at the moment of exit, but that is to be expected and is not truly a difficulty of exit.
What are the sources of liquidity to finance an exit?
US Dollars bought from either the Central Bank or the interbank market have been the usual sources.
Can equity and earnings be easily repatriated to the investor’s country?
Is Sub-Saharan Africa truly the next emerging market for investors?
Sub-Saharan Africa is already emerging and should not be seen as the “next” emerging market. I do not know enough about opportunities outside Africa to comment on them with confidence.
What is the effect of the global economic crisis on Sub-Saharan Africa, and what is its effect on existing portfolio companies and future opportunities?
The crisis has made portfolio investors from the Western world more cautious about investing in Africa than they would otherwise have been. In my view, the declines in international commodity prices have been more damaging to Sub-Saharan Africa than the crisis because they have meant that Government revenues and access to foreign exchange have both fallen. But neither the crisis nor the declines has meant that there is any shortage of opportunities. The opportunities are still there. It is an abundance of those who are willing to take them that is lacking.
What legal or policy changes would make investing in Africa more attractive to funding sources?
Perhaps the most critical changes are more punishment for corruption, more independent judiciaries, stricter term-limits for rulers and better social services (especially healthcare, education and transport infrastructure).
What are the most critical organisational and incentive measures your firm took to ensure that your firm is able to strike a balance between delivering practice, geography and industry expertise, while maintaining client focus, high quality work and clear internal accountability?
We have stuck to our core practices and sectors and maintained our hiring policies, diversity and ISO 9001:2008 Certification. We have continually strengthened our back office and technology, improved the quality of the training and exposure that we provide, increased wages regularly and promoted staff. One key point for the future is to do better at communication. We keep hearing messages about us that are strange, based on a misunderstanding of the facts or misleading information for example the ones in Q1 (size) and Q5 (ALN) above.
I believe the strength of any organisation is in the unity of purpose, but at the same time a diversity of personalities and disciplines and expertise. With that as a background, in your estimation, who makes the ideal candidate for your firm?
We are drawn to young lawyers who are hardworking, bright, sober and decent.
What can law students do, while students, to ready themselves for a slot in your firm?
Work hard, get good exam results, remain sober and always act with decency.
What do you do outside the firm to enrich your life?
Family, friends, history and current affairs.