Olumide Akpata: Taking The Bull By The Horn
For every success story, there are certain unmitigated and discouraging moments that were conquered by sheer determination and hard work. They are majorly fueled by the determination not to give up on noble dreams as well as the desire to carve out a niche for oneself. Most times, providence also plays a major role in deciding one’s fate and this can happen in varying forms and degrees. Therefore, it would be safe to say that fate and hard work factors combine to endow greatness on some people.
That story of the unseen hand, helping to determine the course of one’s life aptly captures the journey of Mr Olumide Akpata, one of the most successful commercial lawyers in Nigeria. He had planned to be a businessman and was actually working to make that dream come through. But fate had a different plan for him. Through his father’s intervention and advice, he decided to read law. While business administration lost him, legal profession gained. He has just been elected the president of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), the largest body of lawyers in Africa.
“I made up my mind that I was going to be a businessman because I was close to my mother who was a renowned businesswoman. When it was time to select courses in secondary school, my father who is a medical doctor was going through my result and noticed I had dropped chemistry. He took it up with me and asked how I was going to be a medical doctor without studying chemistry. I replied, ‘Who said I was going to be a doctor?’
“My father is a very liberal person, so I made it clear to him that I wasn’t going to study medicine, and that I was going to study business administration because, in my young mind, I felt that since I wanted to be a businessman, what I should study is business administration,” Akpata recalled.
According to him, his father pointed out that he was doing very well in literature, history and other art subjects, and therefore suggested to him to rather study law. “So that was how the issue of law came up. My father just gave me a piece of very basic career advice based on some of the subjects that I seemed to be good at and the rest is history,” he said.
Because he was very comfortable with the arts, it was not difficult for him to enjoy his time in the faculty of law, University of Benin, the moment he gained admission into that Institution. “I began to understand what law as a course really entails and today, I feel privileged to be a lawyer because it is a tool for social engineering. It is more than just the letter of the law. You can do so much as a lawyer and you have a ring-side seat in every field of human endeavour. You cannot say the same about all other professions” Akpata enthused.
Graduating at the age of 20 in 1992 and cutting his legal teeth in the law firm of Dr Mudiaga Odje & Co. in Warri, Delta state for two years, having been called to the Bar in 1993, he relocated to Lagos. He moved to Lagos in 1996 and teamed up with his cousin, Oghogho Akpata, who had just set up the law firm – Templars in 1995 after honing his own skills in the firm of F.O Akinrele & Co.
From 1996 till date, Olu, as he is fondly called, has worked with Oghogho and others in building and sustaining a world-class multi-sectoral and full-service law firm, which is now in the 25th year of its existence and consists of over 100 fee-earners, including two Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SAN).
How was he able to achieve such a feat at a relatively young age and experience? Olu said the death of his mother when he was in the final year at the University spurred him not to disappoint. This development, he said, made him grow up very quickly and set the goal of ensuring he did not derail in his ambition to be an outstanding lawyer.
“When she passed, I said to myself, ‘I will soon become a lawyer. I must excel if not for nothing else, for her memory’. She did not see my graduation day. She did not see my call to bar ceremony. So, I must practise law and do it well. In all honesty, it was at that point that I suddenly realised that I needed to wake up. My Dad and my sisters needed me and what is the best way to be there for them, I asked myself? I reasoned that it would mean being good at what I do. It, therefore, became a life ambition for me to excel in the practice of law and to make sure that my family unit did not fall apart because, in many stories, the loss of a parent can radically alter the course of the family.
“But God was gracious for us. We thank God for it. My father turned 80 in May this year. My younger sister is a lawyer. I am glad and grateful to God that 28 years into my career, I have achieved most of my goals and my family is still intact,” he added, restating that his major goal at that time was to succeed as a lawyer and keep his family together.
For him, he has never been motivated by the pursuit of material wealth in the quest for success. This restraint, he attributed to his faith as a born-again Christian. So, what triggered the self-discipline in him? His words: “I have been a born-again Christian since my University days. So, when you are grounded in faith, you keep ruminating on the verse of the scriptures that says ‘the Lord shall provide all your needs according to his riches’. We do not just recite those verses in vain. I am faith-based, so I believe that He who gives a vision would make a provision.
“Therefore, my upbringing played a major role. It is the influence of my mother who died 28 years ago. That is why parenting is very important. The things that my mother taught me 30 years ago are still ringing in my ears till today. So, it is a combination of my faith and upbringing.”
He confessed that it was a difficult task raising the firm at the beginning because, at some point, moments of self-doubts crept in.
“But because we were clear in our minds what we wanted to achieve, we stayed focused. For example, I always tell people it was because of the fact that we were in that process that I’m not a litigator today. I had to sacrifice that aspect of my career. I started as a litigator. Indeed, when my uncle suggested that I joined my brother, the original plan was for me to run the litigation side of the firm.
“But because we had just started a new firm, there was no time to go and sit in court from 9 O’clock to 3 O’clock, and maybe your case would not be heard. Firstly, I asked myself how many briefs would I get in this same town that had Rotimi Williams SAN, J.O.K. Ajayi, SAN and all the other very senior colleagues who were very much present in the 1990s? Mind you, we had encountered commercial law practice. My cousin had encountered commercial practice at F.O Akinrele & Co. and saw a different side of the practice and the abundant opportunities there,” he said, adding that not a lot of Senior Advocates of Nigeria then were interested in commercial law practice. Therefore Templars decided to go the ‘road less travelled’.
Consequently, the firm blazed the trail in electricity law, competition law, privatization programmes foreign exchange regulations, foreign investment advice, transfer of technology, energy and technology laws etc. “So that was the road we travelled. In terms of the name of the firm, we also took a strategic decision not to bear Akpata & Akpata law firm. We decided very quickly we were going to build an institution that would be distinct from us. That was why we picked an anonymous name – Templars. As a result, whenever people heard Templars, they retorted, who are those and what do they do? So, we had to climb that hill.
“Another challenge was that we were young and operating in Lagos. Everyone knows that operating in this environment as a new player in any field is not easy, but we were very lucky we have a never say die spirit. Maybe it was a function of where we come from. We do not take no for an answer. We pushed hard and then there is also the fact that as lawyers, we are knowledge merchants. We were tenacious and never looked for distant gratifications,” he explained.
How could young people replicate his feat, Olu said anyone setting up today should go and learn more about new areas of the law for instance technology, competition and consumer protection, medical law and entertainment law. According to him, law curricula do not provide for the training of lawyers on how to advise and settle disputes but is predominantly litigation based. So, he advises anybody starting today to chart a new course. “It is still quite possible although it could be tough as the economy is in really bad shape. That is why I am happy that I was successful in the elections because it is a cardinal part of my mission to work to provide the platform for young lawyers to thrive,” he said.
According to Olu, who ran a successful media campaign in his quest to clinch the coveted office of the President of the NBA, social media is a powerful tool but it can be a two-edged sword. It can be properly deployed for good use but can also be used to destroy someone if not well managed or deployed for a negative cause. He, therefore, warned people to be wary of some of the things they see on social media, pointing out a trending video where he danced two years ago in Abuja, which has been produced by his critics to create mischief by saying it was his victory party ball.
“So, I’m very careful of social media, but we all have to embrace it. My campaign was a combination of both the use of the new media and a very strong ground game because I dealt directly and interfaced with lawyers until COVID-19 made it impossible for us to move around freely,” he said. “For the avoidance of doubt,” he added, “this is not to suggest that I support in any way any attempt to gag the media or to restrict the fundamental rights of Nigerians to express themselves freely. The best we can do is to continue to encourage people to be more responsible in their use of social media and more sensitive and respectable to the emotions of others.”
Interestingly, every successful person gains the attention of the opposite sex very easily. How has this handsome goal-getter faired in warding off female admirers? He said:
“I conduct my affairs in a manner that is as much as possible civil, within the context of my faith and to the extent that I can. But I do not have those kinds of problems. I have two sisters and I was very close to my mother. So, I am very comfortable in the company of women and tend to get along well with women.”
On his agenda for the Bar, Olu said he is going to revamp the NBA secretariat such that it would run effectively without being tied to the political leadership of the association. He also wants to strengthen the health insurance for lawyers, overhaul the continuous legal education programme of the NBA and reform the electronic voting system such that the drawbacks noticed in the just concluded elections would be a thing of the past through the building of a reliable database of all lawyers in Nigeria.
Responding to the criticisms that followed his election, Olu said although the process of the election was imperfect, his emergence was largely a reflection of the will of Nigerian lawyers. “I think there is no process that involves humans that can be perfect. The second point, the outcome of this election is largely a manifestation and reflection of the will of the Nigerian Bar and I stand to be corrected. The outcome largely is reflective of what the Nigerian lawyers want,” he said adding that he was the only candidate who publicly criticised the process during the build-up to the election, while other candidates kept quiet, commended the electoral committee of the NBA and finally submitted themselves to the process. He pledged to leave the system better than he met it.