Stella Duru: A woman can succeed anywhere
Could you please tell us about yourself?
I am a partner in the EPG practice, (specialising in energy and power) in the Nigerian law firm of Banwo & Ighodalo. I come from a happy, close knit and large family of six children. I am the fourth of six children and the second daughter with two older brothers, an older sister and two younger sisters. My mom and dad are the best parents in the world.
I am from a little village called “Alike” in a slightly bigger town called “Umunumo,” which is located in the Ehime-Mbano Local Government Area of Imo State. My parents are retired. My dad was a banker, while my mum was a teacher.
I am proud to say that I am “home grown…made in Nigeria”, as all of my education was in Nigeria. I attended St. Mary’s Private School, Lagos State, and then went on to Queen’s College, Yaba, also in Lagos State. I had my undergraduate studies at the University of Lagos.
I was called to the Bar in 2001 and I have been working at Banwo & Ighodalo since then. I love travelling and when I find the time, I absolutely love to cook.
What informed your decision to pursue a legal career?
My love for intrigue and righting wrongs. Though cliché-ish, but the late Nelson Mandela unknowingly played a larger than life role in my pursuit of a legal career.
Can you take us through how you rose up the ranks in your career?
A very green horn, I started my career as a Youth Corper in Banwo & Ighodalo. I am happy to note that I was retained at B&I, following the completion of my 12 months as a Youth Corper.
For the first three to six years of my career, as is usual with any young lawyer trying to decipher what area of law to build a career in, I juggled litigation, general corporate commercial and energy (oil, gas and power) transactions. However, by the fifth year, it had become clear that I had fallen in love with everything, oil, gas and power and my career took off at that point. At that time, I had become involved in advising oil and gas companies, negotiating industry specific contracts, and if I recall clearly, I had been drafted as part of the team diligencing the vertically integrated government-owned power utility, known as National Electric Power Authority. Nigeria was deeply on a reform path then. Indeed, the Electric Power Sector Reform Act was passed into law in March 2005.
By my sixth year in B&I, I had started to lead teams in relation to certain oil, gas and power transactions, and in recognition of my commitment to client satisfaction and quality delivery, I was officially elevated to the role of substantive team leader in the Energy Practice Group (EPG) and promoted to Senior Associate/Counsel and subsequently, Senior Counsel under the Firm’s former hierarchical structure.
This elevation to the position of team leader came shortly after I returned home, following a successful nine-week Africa visiting lawyers’ internship programme in the law firm of EdwardNathan (as it then was), in Johannesburg, South Africa. It is important to note that during my stint at EdwardNathan, I published an article on the Nigerian power sector in the Business Law Review of the BusinessDay in July 2005. Thus, you would see my continuing relationship with the power sector whilst the oil and gas sector continued, ever so often to woo me.
I was admitted to partnership, 11 odd years later in recognition of my loyalty, commitment and continuing push/tenacity for “bettering my best”. In a nutshell, I rose through the ranks by remaining focused, committed, passionate, tenacious and never losing sight of the fact that clients’ satisfaction remains paramount. I also hold dear the principle that a lawyer is only as good as what she knows and how she uses what she knows in solving her clients’ problems.
You are the only female partner at Banwo & Ighodalo. How did you achieve this?
I am actually not the only female partner in B&I. Our firm prides itself on being inclusive and have as many women as men, smashing glass ceilings in their areas of specialisation.
However, I am the only female partner in the EPG of the firm, which houses our oil, gas, power and mining deals/transactions.
ven the very technical nature of deals and transactions in this area of law, female lawyers have traditionally shied away from playing in thisspace. However, I love challenges and the ability to be a pacesetter and that helped in directing me into this area of law practice.
How do you ensure that your impact is felt in an environment that is male dominated?
I get younger lawyers, especially younger female lawyers, to see that a woman can succeed anywhere, provided she remains true to what she believes in and does her homework smartly and with grit. I think too much emphasis is placed on male dominance, and not too much time is given to actually doing the hard and smart work required for the job.
So, I make time to deliver presentations to the oil and gas club in the University of Lagos (my alma mater) and also give talks during the Career Fair at the same University. I usually punctuate my talks with pep talks on how the world seemingly dominated by men; can be conquered by any focused, driven and intelligent lady.
Instructively, during my time in Houston negotiating the Brass LNG suite of contracts, I had an all female team and we were dubbed the “B&I Angels,” as we were unrelenting in meeting our deadlines and beating down on the men at the negotiation table! So, I would think I have been able to impact quite a few ladies, who now have blossoming careers in oil, gas and power sectors.
What are some of the values you live by?
Hard, smart work, integrity, be inclusive, go the extra mile, be different, do different, and have fun whilst you can. All of these values I learnt from my parents. They remain my main motivating factor and influencers. It is also important to note that my parents ensured equal opportunities for the girls, as well as the boys in the family.
As mentioned above, I am from the Eastern part of Nigeria and traditionally, it was not the norm to educate the females, at least not up to high school and university levels in the family, as the men were considered the breadwinners, since the women will most likely be married off.So my parents went the extra mile and they did differently from their peers and I can proudly state that all their children, even the daughters, are accomplished professionals today!
Do you think women are well represented in the legal field?
Oh yes! Nigerian women in the legal field have been smashing class ceilings!
What does it take to have a successful career as a lawyer?
Passion, without which you will not hunger for knowledge and will be unable to successfully improve yourself. A lawyer that is not knowledgeable cannot solve problems, and if you cannot solve problems, then you can be chalked as having wasted the fees you paid for school, especially law school.
It is also important to dominate your skills, by getting better at what you do. There are other values like commitment and loyalty, nurturing and maintaining relationships, as well as remaining relevant by continually updating your knowledge base.
How did you develop the interest in the area of renewable energy?
My interest in power generally was linked to when a distant relation died on the operating table, because of power outage and no back-up generator in the hospital. That sort of shaped my continuing interest in the energy space, especially the link between gas and power. I hold strongly to the view that once we fix the power sector, then quite a huge chunk of our ills as a nation will slowly, but surely be fixed.
What would you say is your most significant achievement so far?
Being able to convince one of our biggest clients that there was no requirement for international counsel on one of our deals and that we as a Nigerian firm could successfully negotiate the relevant contracts at cheaper rates, thus helping with the cost profile of the company with the same, if not better quality than our international colleagues.
I am happy that we delivered on that deal and excellently, too. And the accolades from the chairman/managing director/general counsel of the company were deeply satisfying. Also linked to this deal was my deep satisfaction that the ladies, who were part of my team, went on to become top-notch negotiators/lawyers at the companies they joined after working with out firm. Being invited as a speaker/panelist at the Women in Energy Breakfast, as well as the Africa Power Roundtable all the way in South Africa, between January 31 and February 2, 2017 is indeed a great feat.
What are some of the challenges you have faced in your career and how did you overcome?
Being able to overcome the narrative that, for certain type of deals, local counsels are not “good enough”. With such narrative, your only option is to continually give your very best at all times. You don’t overcome a challenge by talking about it. You continue to do and then you find that the challenge doesn’t exist any longer!
How do you juggle home and work?
I think it all boils down to being diligent and efficient. Also, timing is important. You have to be very deliberate about what you want for you and ultimately find your happiness. It can be tough, but I can say I see more and more women successfully managing these two roles. Some may have health challenges because of a lack of sleep, but they seem to be managing it quite well.
Most importantly, you must find a supportive spouse, who is interested in seeing you succeed at both roles – as a mother and as that successful professional. Your success is his, ultimately.
How do you relax?
I go to the movies, watch series, go to the spa, read or write fiction and cook.
Where do you see yourself in the next five years?
First female Minister of Power? Minister of Petroleum? Who knows?
What is your advice for younger women wanting to strike the right balance between career and family?
Love what you do and find time for family. Career cannot take the place of family and if you are all for family and cannot bring bread to the table by what you do, then you may not have a family after all.
So, find the right balance. Ask God for guidance, when it gets overwhelming and frustrating. Take a deep breath at such times and then very quickly, get back to the grind. Don’t forget to find time for you though, because without you, there is no career and simply, a memory in the family.