In-house legal roles offer African lawyers greater room for self-expression and career progression, said speakers at the launch of the African Corporate & Government Counsel Forum.
A new association which promotes and assists African in-house lawyers was launched last month, at an online event that highlighted the benefits and challenges of the profession.
The African Corporate & Government Counsel Forum (ACGC) aims to provide learning opportunities and networking, while promoting greater inclusion and diversity throughout the legal community.
ACGC was established by Nankunda Katangaza, founder and director of London-based legal services consultancy Hook Tangaza and public relations specialist Cynthia Lareine of Lareine Gold Consulting, keen to build greater links and mutual support between African general counsel. The pair hosted the organisation’s launch event and leadership seminar on 19 January, alongside a panel of current and former in-house lawyers from African and global corporations.
ROOM FOR SELF-EXPRESSION
In-house legal roles offer African lawyers greater room for self-expression and career progression, if they fully commit to the business world and seize opportunities for personal development, according to the panellists.
Lara Oyesanya, general counsel and chief risk officer for online payment company Contis, found greater autonomy and room for self-expression in the business world, than in private practice law. Drawing on her own experiences as a barrister and solicitor in England and Nigeria, she felt restricted by the English class system at the Bar and the lack of autonomy within law firms. Instead, working for British Rail offered a greater work-life balance and the chance to work on big cases, all the way up to the Court of Appeal.
Through an in-house career Oyesanya worked for some of the country’s largest corporate names including HBOS, Aviva and Barclays. She worked on BAE Systems’ response to a major Serious Fraud Office investigation, putting her in the right place at the right time to be appointed to work with the corporate monitor: “I got lucky because that was a very high-profile matter.” That experience has ultimately led her to board-level positions in the fintech sector.
This was echoed by Olivier Pognon, chief legal officer of Airtel Africa in Nairobi. Originally from Benin, he practised law in Paris with Mayer Brown and the French Development Agency (AFD). He was grateful for private practice: “It gave me the background, the basics, the fundamentals to feel comfortable as an in-house,” but he was frustrated at the lack of client information given to associates. Working in-house in Africa, first with MTN in South Africa, and then with Airtel, he now has access to that information and that responsibility.
LaTanya Langley, New York-based vice president and general counsel with manufacturing giant Bic, had similarly frustrating experiences working for some of the most prestigious United States law firms, where she found herself sidelined and misunderstood by predominantly white partners.
Moving in-house with beverage giant Diageo, including a stint in Ghana, Langley said she found a role which was better suited to her personality and strengths as a strategic thinker: “I was able to find the right professional role to me,” whereas at law firms, “[I had] the wrong skillset for the roles I was in”.
She found being different and innovative was a strength in the business world and allowed her to be a “strategic disruptor”, particularly when it came to emerging markets.
The event was jointly organised with BlackGC2025, an organisation which seeks the appointment of 1000 black general counsel at Fortune 1000 companies by 2025.
BlackGC2025 co-founder Ernest Tuckett, associate general counsel with Verisign, co-hosted the event and endorsed Langley’s perspective, observing that law firms do not teach their lawyers to be innovative and take risks.
The event also heard from Teri McClure, former general counsel at UPS, another to see the opportunity in a business environment and an inspiration by Tuckett and Langley.
Having a more central role in discussions was also part of the appeal for Fred Waithaka, Nairobi-based head of legal for Safaricom, who relished the opportunity to have a more intimate and impactful relationship with the business.
LEARNING THE LESSONS
In line with ACGC’s mission, Langley advised current general counsel and those considering moving in-house, on the importance of “street sense” and leaving one’s comfort zone. She also noted that building local relationships was crucial to successfully executing business strategy.
Too often, in-house lawyers do not see themselves as having power to give advice, said both McClure and Oyesanya, who encouraged them to have confidence in their voices. Self-promotion was important, explained Langley and McClure, who found that colleagues often did not understand their work and their value otherwise.
There were concerns among the panel that too often, boards and executives see their legal counsel as a cost or merely a lawyer, rather than a part of the business.
McClure and Langley fought this perception by embracing opportunities to learn their business, taking on non-legal roles to get first-hand experience, though not before ensuring that they had established their legal credentials first.
Waithaka observed that with more work than ever before being done in house, rather than simply handed off to external counsel, there should be more opportunities for lawyers to take an active role.
As for private practice lawyers, the speakers agreed that they need to do a better job of providing advice to their clients. Waithaka advised them to understand the client’s business, while Oyesanya was put off by law firms which sit on the fence rather than giving definitive advice, and focus purely on specialised legal advice rather than giving a commercial perspective. The hourly charging model also received criticism, with Oyesanya calling for fixed costs.
Katangaza hosted a session of the International Bar Association’s annual conference late last year, , and chaired a panel at the 2018 African law & Business summit.