It’s a Juggle but Women Make their Mark in Nigerian Law
Veteran South African court reporter Tania Broughton interviews Nigerian attorney Sandra Oyewole on her life in law as part of the Women in Law series currently being run by Africa Legal. In coming weeks women working in legal services across Africa will tell their stories and share their challenges.
Attorney Sandra Oyewole has a love/hate relationship with the often sweltering temperatures of her home country, Nigeria - she says it is both the best and the worst thing about living and working in its capital Lagos.
But when it comes to the “heat” of practising law she is quite at ease.
She describes herself as “determined and tenacious” in just about everything she does, both work-wise and in her personal life as a wife and mother to two teenage girls.
Now passionate about her work as a partner of Olajide Oyewole LLP, she says she just “fell into law” because she was good at the subjects required for the university degree.
“I don’t recall it being much of a driving need to be a lawyer. It was more of a practical decision and I believed it was something I could probably do.
“I was called to the Nigerian Bar in 1993 and was fortunate to get a job immediately,” she recalls.
That job was in the Chambers of Chief FRA Williams SAN, run by Chief Rotimi Williams SAN - also known as “Timi the Law” because he was Nigeria’s foremost and fearsome litigator. He achieved Queen’s Counsel (QC) status and was also a Senior Advocate of Nigeria. He died in 2005.
“We called him ‘Chief”.....it was a family run practice. I also worked with Aunty Bola (Chief Mrs Bola Williams SAN) who was head of chambers, Uncle Ladi (Chief Ladi Williams SAN), FRW (Folarin Williams) and TEW (Mr Tokumbo Williams SAN), not to mention a whole host of other senior lawyers.”
They took her under their wing and taught her how to litigate and not to fear the courtroom or take a “backroom” attitude towards her job.
She was a senior associate there when she was offered a position at Olajide Oyewole and Company which then became Olajide Oyewole LLP.
It is now one of the biggest “Pan African” firms in the country and is a member of the global law firm DLA Piper.
When it comes to entertainment law, Oyewole is a force to be reckoned with.
It is a sector said to be worth billions of dollars and dubbed “Nollywood”.
“Nigeria has a rich and vibrant creative industry. Our innovative sector is growing fast, and these sectors need to be up to date and practical laws need to be in place to support continuous growth and development. Without these, growth is inhibited, revenue drops and piracy thrives.
“Our copyright, trademark and patent laws urgently need updating…my firm is closely monitoring the progress of various legislative bills and lobbying for promulgation.
“We have a serious piracy problem. Education is key...my office regularly hosts workshops, I speak at conferences, and we also run an anti-piracy programme. “
Another area of the firm’s practice involves tackling the country’s complex inheritance laws, which often result in women being impoverished.
Again, Oyewole gets out there, and is invited to speak on this issue. Her office has contributed to a book - Through the Fire - on estate matters.
These weighty issues are all consuming. And she says the volume of work can keep her up at night.
“I just don’t have enough time to do all that is needed or what I want to.”
And, she says, it is not easy to be a woman in law - or in any profession - in Africa or even globally.
“In Nigeria, the woman is typically in charge of raising the children and looking after the home. Combining this with a career, is tough, very tough. I am not sure a woman can really have it all at one time. I agree with the school of thought that you have some things at different times, as your children grow older, the pressures are different.”
On a broader note though, Olajide enthuses about working in “beautiful” Africa and keeps tabs on developing law in other countries, specifically Ghana’s copyright law, South Africa’s counterfeit law and Rwanda’s “open door policy” relating to technology.
“Nigeria’s Presidential Enabling Business Environment Council has also made significant progress,” she says.
“There are challenges….but there are also improvements in terms of the ease of doing business and market opportunities.
“But new business players must understand the environment and not assume that one country is the same as another one, just because they are both in Africa. What works in one may not work in another. They also need to understand the laws….do not ignore the laws or get led astray and do the wrong thing, it could end up being quite disastrous for the business in question.”
The challenge for the legal profession, she says is to embrace the “fourth industrial revolution”.
“Lawyers need to prepare for the impact on their careers and businesses. What areas of law will remain relevant? How will the clientele evolve? What services will no longer be required? Can our jobs be automated? What will constitute the big transactions in years to come?
“For example, our work in intellectual property and the creative industries meant we witnessed part of the evolution first-hand, the crash of the CD, the availability of music at no cost online and it was apparent that this would have a domino effect across most, if not all, sectors.”
On a personal note, Oyewole says home is where her family is, and right now it’s in Lagos which she loves “because of the food and the music” but not so much the city's notorious grid-locked traffic.
She says she is still trying to find some balance in her life and in her down-time she watches television and hangs out with her family and friends.
“And I try to catch up on my reading…...I have nearly 50 books that I want to read!”
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