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‘COVID-19 raised value and utility of technology in legal businesses’

By Joseph Onyekwere
14 September 2021   |   3:45 am
Administration of justice is critical for local businesses and foreign investments because it is meant to be a basis for confidence that if and when transactions run into disputes or things go wrong,....

Dolapo Kukoyi is the Managing Partner at Detail Commercial Solicitors.

Dolapo Kukoyi is the newly appointed managing partner of Detail Commercial Solicitors. In this interview with JOSEPH ONYEKWERE, Kukoyi, who leads the firm’s Energy, Infrastructure & Power Practice speaks on how COVID-19 and the administration of justice system impact on legal business in Nigeria, among other issues.

As a business lawyer, how do you think Nigeria’s administration of justice system affects local businesses and foreign investments and how can we get the best out of the system?
Administration of justice is critical for local businesses and foreign investments because it is meant to be a basis for confidence that if and when transactions run into disputes or things go wrong, the disputes can be resolved fairly and transparently within reasonable time. However, where you have a failing justice system or one that doesn’t provide for the confidence required, you find people looking for alternatives such as provisions for foreign dispute resolution or in some extreme cases you will find clients who would rather not do any business at all.

In terms of how we can get the best out of the system, I would say we have chosen to stay proactive such that in structuring clients transactions, projects and contractual arrangements, we are able to spot potential disputes and risks ahead, advice on risk mitigation and keep our clients from getting into disputes.

How in your opinion, have legal businesses been impacted by COVID-19 pandemic?
Legal businesses have been impacted by the pandemic because our clients have also been affected, but it is interesting to note that the legal business in Nigeria and across the world too, actually started to have challenges at least two-three years before the pandemic. Specifically speaking for Nigeria, remember that we had a recession before the pandemic and we were already seeing a legal market where there was fierce competition, underpricing and increasingly sophisticated clients who wanted more work for less money. A number of commercial firms were already considering their options on how they could innovate and get bigger pieces of the pie in terms of legal work. From a national perspective, we have also seen an increase in insecurity and issues around poverty and crime that have impacted on business and movement of goods and services.

Coming back to the pandemic, it has also produced its bright sides; one being the value and utility of technology in the legal business, communicating with clients and the delivery of legal services has become unprecedented. In addition, on the business side, a lot of clients who value legal services have had to lean heavily on law firms to navigate them through restructuring they require in these times. It has been challenging but we are grateful to have been able to support our clients as we keep growing, evolving, and innovating to meet their needs.

As managing partner, how are you moving to support your team to cushion the effects of this new reality?
The only constant thing in life as we say is change. The times ahead call for constant introspection, innovation in our business and constantly providing value added client support. It is also a time to proactively understand all that is going on in our macro environment and assist clients and stakeholders in responding to the effects of the environment on their businesses.

For us as a team to be able to deal with all of the changes stated above and support our business, we are constantly building capacity, encouraging and incentivising innovation, supporting each other mentally, emotionally and physically in these times. It is a time like no other for empathy and inclusiveness and as a leadership, a time to constantly engage and listen to the younger generation.

Regardless of outcomes, it is believed that situations such as the pandemic could present legal business opportunities. What sort of opportunities are you optimistic about as we emerge from this?
Like the proverbial saying, under every cloud there is a silver lining and it always depends on us having the right perspective. I think that the pandemic presents an opportunity for us to push boundaries and create disruptions. For instance, no one would have thought that remote working or schooling would become a way of life with people remote-working across countries and continents and physical boundaries becoming smaller. It is also an opportunity to leverage technology in different economic sectors and also find avenues to make sustainable impact on our environment and communities that we live and do business in.

The pandemic has also afforded the opportunities for businesses to reassess their business models and how they reach their clients, customers and stakeholders. It has also birthed a lot of business ideas. I was reading an article in Forbes the other day and it reports that in 2020 more than 4.3 million people registered new business applications (U.S Census Bureau). This is more than 25 per cent increase in 2019 numbers and a stark difference compared to the 2008 credit crisis, which only saw an eight per cent drop in company applications. By February 2021 the registration of new business has increased by another 40 per cent. Implication being that people are seeing opportunities for new ventures and technology is reducing the barriers of entry for businesses.

In Nigeria we are seeing a lot of funding coming into the Fintech industry and a lot of players becoming unicorns. A report by the Fintech Association of Nigeria and Ernst and Young estimates that the Fintech Sector raised about $439 million in 2020 alone, which represents 20 per cent of capital raised by all African Start tech startups.

The pandemic has also presented the opportunity for us to also reassess what is most important to us as individuals in terms of health and mental wellbeing, family and life priorities generally and how we want to leave a legacy for the future.

In a society plagued with gender biases and discrimination in workplace, you are a managing partner of your firm. How did you achieve this?
I would say that I have been blessed to be in the right environment with the right support that has brought me this far. Our firm is designed to be a mentoring environment that enables every lawyer be the best that they can be irrespective of their gender. My Lead Partner, who happens to be my mentor encouraged me every step of the way, even when I was kicking and screaming. As a firm, we understand that women come with their unique “blessings” that may make working in a profession and an environment like ours quite challenging, but we ensure that they have all the support that they need to thrive.

Certainly, I cannot discount all the support that I had from my family. To sum it up, I would say by the grace of God, I have been fortunate and blessed.

Briefly describe the path to partnership in a top tier commercial law firm in Nigeria?
The path to partnership is transparency and predictability. One of our core values is organic growth and everyone employed here is a potential partner at the firm. It is the reason we have a unique recruitment process. Once you get into our organisation, you are able to predict your path to partnership as long as you meet the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) for each role.

For the benefit of the younger generation of lawyers, could you briefly tell us about your journey to the top?
I started as a solicitor 16 years ago at the time when Ayuli Jemide, our lead partner had just moved to Lagos and the firm was transitioning from being a full-service firm based in Port Harcourt to a commercial solicitors’ firm with exclusive focus on non-courtroom work in Lagos. I have been fortunate to be part of the process of building the firm and witnessing what was at the time an ambitious business plan coming to life. I have also been privileged to witness many of the firm’s milestones.

My journey is one of growth step by step, learning line upon line into ownership. I became a partner in 2012 and three years ago, I started my incubation period as managing partner. It’s been a learning journey, building relationships, taking opportunities, standing courageously and breasting fierce winds, although it has been a very interesting, impactful and rewarding journey. All glory to God!

Where do you see legal practice in Nigeria in another 10 years?
The Nigerian legal market is one of the most sophisticated and competitive across Africa, maybe apart from South Africa and a few other countries. I think that we will see commercial law practice evolve with the use of technology and artificial intelligence. I still think that having specialist practice areas will still be important as clients get more sophisticated and deal with sundry legal issues internally or outsource, at least cost. We are likely to see law firms evolve and innovate as clients’ needs and requirements also evolve.

We are also likely to see more collaborations and mergers with international law firms as long as Nigeria remains an investment destination of choice. A lot of the growth in legal practice, at least on the commercial side will be determined on what progress is made as a nation in terms of leadership, economic development, political structure, administration of justice system and enabling business environment to mention a few. I would say that lawyers in Nigeria have vested interest in ensuring that Nigeria thrives and succeeds.

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