Mrs Funke Adekoya SAN is head of the Dispute Resolution Practice Group for AELEX. She shares with ‘Legal life …’ her experiences as one of Nigeria’s leading female lawyers, changes to the legal landscape and shares advice for those doing business or visiting Nigeria.

Mrs Adekoya was appointed as the first vice chairman of the Nigerian branch of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators in June 2009 and has been a member of the Body of Benchers since April 1999. She is an advisory board member of the International Bar Association’s African regional forum as well as an officer of its bar issues commission.

Why did you choose a career in law?

Ever since I could think, I’ve always wanted to be a lawyer. I must have been influenced by my dad who was studying law while I was growing up. My childhood memories consist of playing ‘judge and jury’ with my elder sister (who also read law), playacting the ‘eating of dinners’ at Inns of Court, and a fascination with watching ‘Perry Mason’ on TV. A lifestyle that involved attending dressed up dinners with colleagues, after duelling wits with criminals in and outside the courtroom made law the obvious choice. Needless to say, my life is nothing like that – I hardly do any criminal litigation at all!

As one of the pre-eminent female lawyers and one of only 11 to have become a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), what advice do you have for other women lawyers entering the profession?

Having stayed in private legal practice since joining the profession in 1975 and being able to rise to the pinnacle of the profession by becoming a SAN in 2001 makes me a trailblazer of sorts. Up to the mid 1980s, there were not too many female lawyers who were in private legal practice as litigators. Thankfully, women appearing as counsel in courts today are no longer curiosities. However in addition to the child care and work/life balance issues faced by women lawyers everywhere, for women lawyers in Nigeria cultural ‘barriers’ pose a special challenge. Certain types of legal work (matrimonial, probate, IP) are perceived as the ‘female’ preserve, while other areas (financing, election petitions, corporate dispute resolution, M&A [mergers and acquisitions]) are perceived to require ‘testosterone’!

Tell us about your practice

AELEX, where I head the Dispute Resolution Practice Group and am currently the quality control and client care partner is also another trailblazer, having been the first firm in Nigeria to be formed as the result of a merger of pre-existing law firms, and structured from inception to be a full service law firm with departments headed by practice specific partners. The partners in AELEX realised in their pre-merger firms that Nigeria was becoming an attractive emerging market and that we needed to prepare for the impending globalisation of legal services by structuring a law firm with the capacity to provide the same level of local law and knowledge skill sets that inward clients are used to globally. Noting that lawyers in a global economy need to be more than legal specialists; AELEX focuses on providing clients with a deep knowledge of relevant industry sectors and the ability to ‘partner’ clients through an evolving business environment. In addition to Dispute Resolution, our other practice groups cover energy, tax, M&A, transportation, infrastructure, environment, corporate and commercial, with each group headed by a partner acknowledged pre- merger to be eminently qualified in the practice area he heads. We really are a one-stop shop.

What are the main challenges and opportunities for Nigerian law firms as the legal services market becomes increasingly globalised?

Although in Europe and many other countries of the Western world, legal qualifications of one country are recognised for the purposes of requalification or the provision of a restricted level of legal skills and representation, Nigerian firms are hampered from competing across West Africa by legislative barriers in many countries which prohibit legal practice by non-citizens or provide a lengthy and time consuming requalification process. As a result firms are restricted to growth within their countries of origin and cannot effectively provide legal services across African borders except through networks. On the plus side however increasing globalisation exposes African law firms to new specialisms in legal practice, and while working with foreign colleagues we are able to further enhance our skill sets and knowledge.

What advice would you give to UK law firms or companies doing business with Nigeria?

Before you hire a law firm, ask for client references and cross check them carefully. Use the ’horses for courses’ approach: the law firm that handled the service of a client’s divorce papers may not be appropriate for a share swap transaction. For new entrants into Nigeria ask for referrals and introductions from clients or businesses that have used law firms or done business in Nigeria. Then if possible, visit the firm in person first to get a feel for their service provision standards.

Finally, what are your recommendations for visitors to Nigeria?

You can’t come to Lagos or Abuja and say you’ve seen Nigeria; you need to get out into the less travelled areas and cities. The north, the east and the west of the country are culturally different and if you have time, you need to see all three to get a feel of the country. If you don’t have time, a visit to the National Museum in Lagos will give you an overview of the country while Bogobiri House (a deluxe boutique hotel come cultural centre) and Quintessence (an art gallery/Nigerian artefacts store) both in the Ikoyi area of Lagos are the places to get a quick appreciation of art, music and local knowledge. Remember that travel alerts and security warnings are exactly that – alerts and warnings. Be careful, as every country has its ‘no go’ areas.

AELEX is a member of the Law Society’s International Division.