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GC Magazine




Dayo Okusami is a group general counsel and company secretary of Nigerian oil and gas company Atlantic Energy. Catherine Wycherley catches him in-between one of his frequent trips to London and Zurich to discuss his career so far.

G C     I N T E R V I E W

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GC: Did you always want to be a lawyer?

Dayo Okusami (DO): No, I didn’t want to be a lawyer. Being a lawyer was my third choice. I wanted to be a pilot, but I’ve been wearing glasses since I was a kid and I found out that you can’t start out wearing them, so that knocked that out. Then I wanted to be an architect, but my technical drawing skills were quite rubbish, to be honest. I found that out in the fourth form. So while I was in the fifth form, trying to decide what I wanted to study in university, one of my friends said, “why don’t you be a lawyer? You talk a lot!” And that is the true story of how I ended up studying law.

GC: What was your route into that and how did it evolve?

DO: It worked out well because I think, inherently, that I always wanted to be one. I used to watch a lot of law-related TV programmes like LA Law, which was a really popular programme back then. I thought it was all very glamorous. So I grabbed the idea real quick. I wanted to be in private practice, and I wanted to be an international lawyer, a partner, flying all over the world, doing crazy sexy deals, and being just a superstar lawyer. And I worked towards that plan. After law school I joined a firm, and I never really seriously considered in-house offers until I was 10 years in, when I started considering what my options could be. I made partner in my ninth year, at 34, and I looked ahead and was like, “hmmm do I want to just do just this for 20 years?” That’s when I started to get tempted by the idea of going in-house.

GC: Nowadays you’re splitting your time between Lagos, London and Zurich. How much time do you spend in each place?

DO: My primary base is Lagos where I spend 15-20 days a month. I work for a very small company and there are meetings I have to attend in person in London at least once a month. Many times I will come for two days, or a working week.  Zurich requires a little less time - I’ll be there once a month for usually two or three days. 

GC: Do you enjoy all the travel?

DO: I do. I always liked travelling as a child. I think I’m lucky. I travel and it’s work, but the way I look at it is: someone’s paying me to do what I like.

GC: What’s the best thing about working for Atlantic Energy?

DO: This was my first in-house role. I’ve been an oil and gas lawyer for 15 years but I learnt a whole new aspect of the business. I’ve expanded my knowledge, both of the oil and gas business itself, but also just about running a business. I was with a law firm for a quite a long time, both as an associate, to a partner, to a head of department. I knew the ins and outs of a law firm. Coming into this company I didn’t know anything, and I’ve had to learn fast. You’re not just doing legal in a small company like mine. It’s sharpened my skills, it’s made me a better professional. I’m a better lawyer now and I’m definitely a better businessman.

GC: What has been the highlight of your career so far? Have there been any projects that have stood out?

DO: The business model that my company runs on is based on a hybrid production-sharing contract that has not been commonly used in Nigeria. Between myself and the founders of the company, we evolved this production-sharing contract, and we were the first Nigerian company to be able to use the evolved contract. It’s a contract that has been used in one form or another by international oil companies, and when I was at the law firm representing the founders of Atlantic Energy (while they were at another company), we developed it. It worked out so well that we founded a new company using this contract. I was very integral to the negotiations - I was the only one who had negotiated every single one of these types of contracts in their evolved form in Nigeria. So I did feel a little bit of professional satisfaction in that; it was a big achievement for me. I think, to a small extent, it was also part of my profile-raising and it opened me up to larger opportunities at larger companies.

GC: What are the legal issues or challenges that you predict you and your team will be facing?

DO: There’s not a lot of movement in the Nigerian legal system. There are not a lot a lot of surprises in the regulatory system either; it’s somewhat static.

However, there is a new oil and gas law that we expect to come into force and it will be industry-changing. But we just recently had elections, so there will be a change in government next month. That means there will be new legislation, and this law that was almost passed now has to go through the whole legislative process again.

There will be a lot of analysing of this draft law as it is re-presented and is going through, because the business will want to know what the impact will be on our industry going forward.

Apart from that it will mostly be reactive work because while you can be anticipatory from the business perspective, from the legal perspective you don’t have a lot of laws that are regularly changed - so it does limit the planning you do on a statutory basis.

GC: Briefly, what are the main challenges and opportunities in Nigeria at the moment?

DO: Working in Nigeria, as in most African countries, is in itself a challenge. Having lived out of the country you know how things operate in European or in American systems. I’m not saying those systems are perfect - because they’re not - but in Nigeria and other countries in Africa, things are still developing. At certain stages, best practices are not implemented. Dealing with the regulators, and giving interpretation and application of the law is sometimes a bureaucratic process. Things are changing for the better but even when applying for leases and getting clarification from the tax authorities you spend a lot of time spinning the wheels in getting things done.

The opportunity is that because it’s a developing economy, almost any investor - should they be brave enough - has an immense rate of return over what you would get anywhere outside, apart from maybe some parts of Asia and some parts of South America. Because of that, you have a lot of money flowing into the country, and the continent, looking for a place to go. There are these opportunities that open themselves up for someone like me, who’s a lawyer, who’s relatively young, and who learns relatively quickly. A lot of international companies want to operate with you and want to explore opportunities, and the exposure, from a personal perspective, has been immense. The growth of the company has been nothing short of phenomenal.

Of course there are challenges, but there’s no restriction on head room. There’s just so much to go out there and grab.

GC: How would you describe your management style?

DO: I’m a very roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-stuck-into-it kind of person. I am very confident in my abilities; my superiors know this and those that report to me know this. I am the kind of person that, if things are not getting done as quickly as I need them to be by people, I do it myself. Those that report to me say I’ve got a very firm management style because I need things done and I am not interested in stories about why it cannot be done. I’m very, very hands-on.

I give my number two an immense amount of freedom because that is what I think has been one of the secrets of my success - I have been allowed to grow. But while I was allowed to grow by my managing partner at the law firm, at the same time, he knew everything I was doing. I think I have learnt from him and adopted that style. I am very on top of all the details; so much so that my CEO has said, “ok, Dayo, you’re general counsel, not legal counsel. Elevate yourself above some of the finer details.” Which I’ve had to learn and I have now learnt in-house. I was a partner that worked like an associate, just because I felt I needed to protect my client. Now that I have the company as my client, I’m very much into that as well. My CEO said in a meeting, “anyone can see you’re committed, perhaps overly committed. Chill!”

I have to like where I’m working and who I’m working for. If you do, it doesn’t feel like hard work. I enjoy going into work and it reflects in how I work, with the people I work for. I’ve only had three jobs in 15 years, I’ve liked everywhere I’ve worked, and I’ve liked all the people I’ve worked with.

GC: If you could go back in time and give your junior self some careers advice, what would it be? What do you wish you’d known sooner?

DO: I’d do it the same way. I’ve always believed personally that if you want to be a lawyer in-house, do some years in a law firm first. It doesn’t take away from those that don’t, I just believe it keeps you more rounded. It’s a matter of how much time you want to put in. I always wanted to be a lawyer in a law firm, and I would never have left the law firm without making partner. Some might say to do five years, then look to go in-house. If I’d made partner later, then maybe I wouldn’t have considered leaving.

I moved in-house to a start-up company and I was one of the first employees, so I had to learn the hard way. It depends on your temperament. Another person might say to go into a more established in-house department, with established rules and regulations and learn how it’s done properly first. I was thrown in the deep end, and I struggled for six months in knowing what to do. I leaned on a lot of my former clients from when I was in the law firm. You sink or you swim - and I almost sank in those six months - but I managed to stay afloat and after that it was relatively easier. I don’t think I would have wanted the “comfort” of going into an already established legal department. Also, would I have had the opportunity to be general counsel at such an establishment? I don’t think I would have. Now I have been offered numerous general counsel roles at companies that perhaps five years ago would never have offered me a general counsel role - bigger, established legal departments.

GC: What do you like to do in your free time?

DO: You’re not going to believe it - I like to travel. l will pop to another country for a weekend.

If I’m not on the move, I’m very much a homebody, because the travelling gets to you. Sometimes my perfect weekend is staying at home, binge-watching House of Cards or Game of Thrones or whatever my current TV series is. A nice weekend is hanging out with friends, or just staying at home, watching TV. I’m quite a TV nerd. HBO, AMC, the cable networks, I don’t watch a lot of the mainstream TV series. If I do they will be some of the comedies – Modern Family and The Big Bang Theory. But I’m more an HBO kind of guy. Because I’m travelling, I can’t watch scheduled TV, but I’m also impatient - I can’t wait a week to watch an episode. I’d rather wait for the whole series to finish and then watch it over a weekend.

I am not much of an exercise person, but I go to the gym three times a week and I run at weekends. But I don’t like it, I do it because I have to! On a Saturday morning, typically I will go and run 10k. 

GC: If you weren’t a lawyer anymore, what would you do instead? What is the alternative career you would turn to?

DO: I’ve always wanted to teach. I turn 40 this year, and like all people who are officially becoming old, I look ahead and think, what am I going to do next? I like what I’m doing now, but I question will I like it in 10 years? If I were to take “early retirement” from law, I would like to teach younger kids - secondary or primary school. I’ve had a lot of very good mentors who have guided me and who I’ve learnt so much from, and that’s why I’ve taken on a number of mentees myself. I would like to offer that kind of support, but to people growing up.