Konyinsola Ajayi, SAN: Leading a 21st century law firm
In serving our clients, managing our practice and overall institutional building, our eyes are always on the future.
In this exclusive interview, Prof. Konyinsola Ajayi, SAN, Managing Partner, Olaniwun Ajayi LP (OALP), speaks with Jide Akintunde, Managing Editor, Financial Nigeria magazine, on recent developments in Nigeria, the state of the legal practice in the country and the top-rankings of OALP on the Chambers Global 2020 indexes of the best Nigerian law firms.
Jide Akintunde (JA): Can we meet you by way of a summary of your background; and how do you combine your professional responsibilities of leading a high-profile law firm with involvement in the academia?
Prof. Konyinsola Ajayi (PKA): Thank you for having me.
I am Konyin Ajayi – a legal practitioner, professor of law and chaplain of Emmanuel Chapel of the Methodist Church of Nigeria. I have practiced law for about forty years with Olaniwun Ajayi LP.
I obtained my bachelor’s degree in law from University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) where I was a Federal Government scholar. I thereafter proceeded to the Nigerian Law School, and upon successfully completing the prescribed course of study, I was called to the Nigerian bar. After a brief period of practice and undertaking the mandatory national youth service, I went on to Harvard Law School in 1981 and obtained a master’s degree in law.
At this time, I had developed a keen interest in issues surrounding the legal aspects of finance and the capital markets. Hence, in 1987, I accepted the opportunity to study for my doctorate degree in law at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge, where I completed my doctoral thesis on the Nigerian capital markets.
At about the same period, I undertook the prescribed course of study for enrolment at the English bar. After my pupillage, I was admitted as a member of the Honourable Society of the Middle Temple and called to the Bar of England and Wales in 1989.
As both a transactions and disputes resolution lawyer, I was preferred with the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) in the year 2000. I subsequently accepted a professorial chair at Babcock University in Ogun State.
Over the course of my career, I have had the privilege, together with many exceptional colleagues at Olaniwun Ajayi and elsewhere, to be involved in many of the commercial transactions and disputes, which have helped shape the Nigerian economy and legal landscape. Within the same period, I have been privileged, as a scholar, tutor and mentor to interact with and help shape and sharpen some of the keenest minds in the Nigerian and international legal sphere.
Very quickly, I think it is important to mention that the combination of my responsibilities as teacher and practitioner are not necessarily divergent. The law is not static; it is dynamic and constantly evolving. Its expression changes over time and with critical thought and debate, new perspectives come to light. And as they take shape, new formulations of established principles are brought to the fore.
The academia plays an immense role in helping us re-imagine the law, thereby, contributing in no small measure to its constant evolution. As a result, my academic work complements, rather than hinders, my legal practice – which, when cloaked with its garb of precedent, could tend towards staticity. This is how I view academia, and with this lens, my work in teaching, inviting debates, and supervising theses of the brilliant minds of tomorrow ensures that my finger remains on the pulse of the innovations we need to nurture.
Thankfully, whilst time, like money, is limited, I have been able to allocate precious time to academic pursuits as I am safe in the knowledge that OALP has built an institution with processes and extremely skilled professionals who are able to run the affairs of the firm and deliver on our commitments to our teeming clientele – with or without my contribution.
So, to the second part of your question, building a team of independent experts and relying on teamwork has assisted me to combine my responsibilities at OALP with the demands that academia places on me.
Prof. Konyinsola Ajayi, SAN
JA: Olaniwun Ajayi ranks highly on the Chambers Global 2020 indexes of the best Nigerian law firms as it has done in the previous editions of the rankings. In fact, the firm tops the 2020 Fintech Legal Index, which is only in its second edition. What has continued to drive the performance and reputation of Olaniwun Ajayi?
PKA: First, I am grateful to know that the market recognizes our work and the standards, which we continue to implement even in the littlest tasks.
To your question, I think the answer is quite straightforward: Olaniwun Ajayi is an extremely client-focused firm. We channel all our energies, intellect and resources towards helping our clients achieve their commercial objectives in the most efficient manner. Our top-quality work, and, more importantly, the results we achieve for our clients lead them to repose trust in us, and this reflects in the testimonials they give of us as well as the stellar reputation of which you speak.
For our part, we stay focused, not on the rankings and awards, but on pushing the envelope and exceeding clients’ expectations. This is the bedrock vision on which our firm was built – to be a standard beyond all – and I am proud to see that this vision has been institutionalized and those who have seen it, have run with it.
Speaking specifically about the Fintech Legal Index, we are very pleased to top the index. For us, the birth of our fintech practice was not merely to reflect the trend among Nigerian firms. Instead, it was an organic response based on our approach to walk with our clients and walk ahead into unnavigated terrain – such that we can be a worthy guide when they choose to venture on the road less travelled.
JA: Olaniwun Ajayi is a multidisciplinary law firm. But going by the Chambers Global rankings, the firm is strongest in some practice areas. What are the specialties that the firm is mostly active in?
PKA: First, I think that speaking of specialties might be somewhat inappropriate for a firm like ours, as we strive for mastery in all legal matters relating to all areas of economic activity. This is not driven by a desire for awards or rankings, but mainly because our clients trust us with very important matters, which they expect will be handled with the best expertise that can be found in the market.
That said, we do tend to see more activity in some areas than others and I believe this is largely driven by the state of the economy over any given period. Over the last 10 years or so, some of the biggest areas of activity for us have been banking and financial services, oil and gas, power and other infrastructure (which will include rail, road, air and sea ports, telecoms, healthcare and education), manufacturing (including FMCG and pharmaceuticals), private equity, mining, capital markets, government business (including legislative drafting), complex commercial litigation and arbitration, as well as mergers and acquisitions. Of course, all of that includes working on both contentious (i.e. litigation, mediation and arbitration) and non-contentious (transactional advisory, project management, etc.) matters within and outside Nigeria.
However, we are by no means jacks-of-all-trades, masters-of-none. Across board, our counsel are recognized and commended by clients and peers alike. They are known as experts in their respective covered sectors or areas of practice. In terms of transactions, our service delivery has enabled us to be staffed on some of the most important deals and transactions in Nigeria. And from a disputes perspective, two of our partners have been preferred as Senior Advocates of Nigeria (the equivalent of Queen’s Counsel in England), which is the highest seal of competence at the Nigerian bar.
In summary: I will say that we are involved in all the core sectors that drive the Nigerian (and indeed, the sub-Saharan African) economy, and we have been regarded as masters in all the areas that matter to men of commerce due to the fact that we are an amalgam of well-rounded commercial lawyers with specialist skills.
JA: Olaniwun Ajayi is covering other African markets, apart from Nigeria. What is your assessment of legal practice in Nigeria relative to those of the other African countries of your service coverage?
PKA: It is true that we cover most of sub-Saharan Africa and have been involved in cross-border work on behalf of Nigerian and non-Nigerian clients in other African jurisdictions.
To the international market, Nigeria has come to be seen as a hub of sorts for professional services – including legal services. This is unsurprising given the size of Nigeria’s economy relative to most others on the continent. Many international investors would prefer to engage professional advisers within Nigeria to manage their matters elsewhere on the continent, because the market here is fairly developed, the advisers are more experienced with commercial disputes/transactions and – to paraphrase feedback from some clients – Nigerian advisers are generally better adjusted to the pace of the international markets.
This said, I believe that the markets in other African jurisdictions have developed significantly over the recent years and the standards of professional service delivery have also experienced corresponding growth.
Specifically, some jurisdictions, for example francophone West African countries, have taken deliberate steps to ease entry and streamline the sources of law to make advisers work much quicker. This has ensured that there is a harmonization across French-speaking West African countries such that, in theory, there is seamless interplay amongst the legal frameworks of these West African countries.
Recently, there have been more opportunities for collaboration and inter-jurisdictional interaction with the plans for a single African market, by way of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). As I see it, growth in trade always spurs development. Therefore, increased trade across the continent will lead to increased expertise and better understanding of other legal regimes in the continent. This should in turn result in better efficiency in advising African and non-African clients alike.
JA: Nigeria is the largest economy in Africa. But with an average GDP growth rate of 2 percent over the last two years, the country is now way behind the fastest growing economies in Africa. What challenges must Nigeria overcome to rev up economic growth and also drive cross-border investment inflows?
PKA: Much has been said about the challenges Nigeria has faced over the last few years. But there are certainly divergent views amongst stakeholders in the polity as to what the biggest challenges are, and the extent to which they impact foreign investment in the country. From my interaction with some of these stakeholders, and based on my role as advisor to existing and potential investors, issues of insecurity, over-dependence on oil revenues, high costs of doing business, poor infrastructure and corruption have continued to be Nigeria’s Achilles’ heel.
These are issues that governments at the federal, state and local levels have dedicated a lot of time to. What is clear, however, is that the results of these plans are yet to be felt – as the country is still crawling at a time it should be speeding along. I think what Nigeria needs at this stage is leadership with a big vision, bold ambitions and the courage and focus to ensure that the vision is translated to reality. We need to build transformational infrastructure that will drive down the cost of production, reconfigure our policies to support a diversified economy, create legal and regulatory frameworks that are designed to attract and retain investment, and stay focused on sending only the right signals to the global market.
JA: The 2019 Finance Bill has now become law. What key provisions of the legislation are good or bad for various stakeholders in the economy, including government, businesses and the proverbial Nigerian “common man?”
PKA: On issues of tax, it may not be ideal to give blanket assessments on what is good or bad for stakeholders. I say this as the specific realities of a particular company would colour the lens through which it views the Finance Act.
At a glance, and without delving too deep, the Finance Act amends several enactments, including the Companies Income Tax Act; the Customs and Excise Tariffs (Consolidation) Act; the Personal Income Tax Act; the Petroleum Profits Tax Act; the Capital Gains Act; the Value Added Tax Act; and the Stamp Duties Act. In sum, the general intendment entails:
i. Increasing effective tax rates and increasing government’s revenue via various fiscal measures;
ii. Using thresholds and promoting fiscal equity by mitigating regressive taxation;
iii. Improving incentives for infrastructure and capital markets investment;
iv. Easing the tax burden on small businesses and facilitating growth of micro, small and medium-scale enterprises (MSMEs);
v. Aligning local tax laws with international best practices.
So, while I will refrain from commenting on whether it is good or bad, what is clear is that many of our tax laws had not been updated to meet the requirements of the 21st century – having been drafted for a different time. Therefore, they needed to be updated to address the dynamics of business in the modern day. The Finance Act, to the extent that it is an attempt to, in one fell swoop, address some of the inadequacies in the fiscal regime, is laudable.
JA: In light of the recent developments in the country that may have caught your attention or caused you to be concerned, how would you like to emphasize the importance of the rule of law?
PKA: The relegation of the rule of law is always the start of anarchy. For a number of months, there have been incidents, some bordering on impunity, that have caused concern about our respect for the rule of law, especially with respect to the interaction among the three independent arms of government, as well as the place of a free press in our society.
I think that fidelity to the rule of law is not only a constitutional imperative; it is also vitally-important for investment and must be taken seriously by all concerned. The bar, as well as the rest of the financial and investment ecosystem, should continue to advocate for the respect of rule of law, as it serves as a bedrock not only for political and social stability. The rule of law also has a direct correlation to the perception that investors have of an investment destination.
JA: How is Olaniwun Ajayi strategizing for the future of heightened competition, innovation and increased importance of data?
PKA: Being one of the oldest surviving commercial law firms in Nigeria, we are a traditional powerhouse of sorts in the Nigerian legal sphere. However, we recognise that change is inevitable; and, as Darwin tells us, it is not the strongest of the species that survives, it is the one that is the most adaptable to change.
As a result, in serving our clients, managing our practice and our overall institutional building, our eyes are always on the future. Our practices mirror the 21st century and like other leading firms in the global market, we have leveraged technology to make our processes nimbler and more efficient. As a firm of innovators ourselves, our strategy is to stay ahead of the curve – whilst remaining fluid and highly adaptive to change. With the wealth of talent – both young and not-so-young – at Olaniwun Ajayi, I am confident that we are more than well equipped to face a changing world.