Nigeria has a promising economy fraught with infrastructural difficulties that require legal expertise to navigate. Ayuli Jemide, Dolapo Kukoyi and Aderemi Oguntoye of Detail Commercial Solicitors speak to World Finance about how their firm is best placed to be that guide
Nigeria has long been touted as one of Africa’s most attractive destinations for investment, with an emerging financial sector and a manufacturing industry that has the capacity to fuel economic growth. At $415bn, the country is currently the 30th-largest in terms of GDP, and has the third-largest manufacturing industry in Africa.
However, the country has been blighted by political mismanagement and corruption, which has caused caution and pessimism from global investors. A recent report by the World Economic Forum (WEF) placed Nigeria at 134th in the world in terms of global competitiveness, just ten places above the bottom of the list.
Although many reforms have been implemented over the course of the last decade and opportunities abound in Nigeria, there are still a number of pitfalls facing investors looking to develop businesses in Nigeria. Having a trustworthy and reliable onshore law firm to help guide businesses is therefore essential. Detail Commercial Solicitors was launched to address these concerns and offer in depth knowledge of this delicate market.
The firm is the first to specialise exclusively in non-courtroom commercial law (something that differentiates it from other legal practices in the country) to spend ample time navigating clients in Nigeria. Lead Partner Ayuli Jemide, with over two decades of experience in Nigerian law, as well as partners Dolapo Kukoyi and Aderemi Oguntoye, spoke to World Finance about how their firm is carving an important niche for itself and what they offer clients.
What is peculiar about Detail?
Ayuli Jemide (AJ): Detail Commercial Solicitors is the first Nigerian commercial solicitor firm to specialise exclusively in non-courtroom practice. The decision to move to a niche and stay there was founded on two key objectives: ‘Differentiation’ – we determine exactly what we do and do it in a distinct manner; and ‘Value’ – our clients enjoy the tangible benefits of our unique business model. Simply put – the value is in our differentiation.
How did the firm start?
Dolapo Kukoyi (DK): Detail is a product of the founding partners’ experiences as young lawyers. Ayuli Jemide started out as a non-court room commercial lawyer; however, under pressure from a few blue chip clients, he veered into litigation. Wearing these two hats (litigator and commercial counselor) led him to some discoveries: first that he was more enthusiastic about the business side of law and he brought greatest value to clients when he had his commercial lawyer hat on. Second is that the clients complained that he was ‘’no longer available’’ as he spent more time with courtroom work.
Jemide saw that many business law clients were not happy with full service multi-tasking law firms. These clients were demanding full attention and nothing less. By 2003, he thought: “There is a vacuum in the legal landscape that presents itself as an opportunity – Nigeria needs a corporate and commercial boutique – a firm that makes itself exclusively available to business clients who need their transactions and advisory work handled with deserved promptness and focus. Detail Solicitors (later Detail Commercial Solicitors) was therefore launched in March 2004.
What were the major challenges with this new business model?
AJ: In putting together the business plan for a totally new concept, we faced many challenges. First was negative perception to a new idea – why do you want to reinvent the wheel? Second was the thinking that a diversified income base, a mix of litigation and solicitors work, was necessary to survive as a law firm in Nigeria. Third was the strong feeling amongst a majority that if your transactions become contentious the litigator hired by your client will steal the client. Fourth was the challenge of looking for people who fit into this new culture of a corporate and commercial boutique in an environment where all the other known firms are full service firms.
So what has been your experience after seven years? How have you navigated these challenges?
AJ: We have methodically dealt with the challenges over the years. Today lawyers and clients have come to respect our business model and the Detail brand. We have successfully reinvented the wheel with legal practice in Nigeria and continue to reinvent ourselves. The fear that we would only survive with a diversified income base has proven to be a myth because our revenue has grown year-on-year. We knew that clients were willing to pay for value, and it was just a matter of time before we hit the top of the value chain.
Regarding the false but popular opinion that we would lose clients to litigators once a matter became contentious, it has actually been the other way round for us – many of our clients have left full service or litigation firms to engage us for their commercial work; they value our services and also see us as their proactive mechanism for staying out of court. The statistics from our clients actually show that their litigation reduces after a few years of working with us.
On the people side, we pay particular attention to who we hire and how we empower them. We have set up a strong mentoring and training mechanism that has organically grown a crop of great minds with a distinct culture of efficiency and responsiveness – the Detail culture. The interesting thing about challenges is that as the market develops there would always be new challenges requiring new strategy. It is so dynamic.
What services do you offer clients?
Aderemi Oguntoye (AO): At Detail we would typically be found advising on specific transactions, helping businesses with start up or immediate strategic objectives, hand holding clients through a project, advising clients on day-to-day decisions, or whatever the client requires.
What sectors do you specialise in?
AO: Our key areas of expertise are: corporate, commercial, capital markets, real estate, oil and gas, infrastructure, public private partnerships, power, project finance, media and entertainment.
How do you like clients to view you?
DK: We hate to be seen as typical because we are not.
AJ: We would like clients to see us as commercially savvy and innovative solution providers – not as hirelings who are not in tune with the larger picture. If we are working on a deal and the client has a business plan, we would request to read the business plan – and we have had to explain to several clients that if we understand the plans and objectives, we tend to provide better service.
AO: People tend to think that lawyers are not good project managers; we would like clients to see us as project managers and trust us to lead transactions. We want their experience to be that we are professional and process driven. In designing our project management and communication tools we prefer to emulate and compete with the investment banks and consulting firms. For example, all our lawyers have been trained to use MS Projects and we use it often.
What is the firm’s culture?
AO: In terms of how we work, constructive collaboration amongst us and also with the client and entire advisory team is an important attribute for every lawyer at Detail. We have a team that is responsible and responsive, yet relaxed and cordial.
DK: Thought leadership in our core practice areas is an essential aspect of our culture – we are a major hub for information via our monthly newsletters, articles, website postings, newspaper columns, contributions to journals and periodic events.
AJ: Externally, we believe in a high level of client intimacy, knowing the client and the business – being in touch with each goal and aspiration. Internally we are wired to think things through – our brainstorm sessions and methods bring out the collective results that satisfy the client.
What type of experts do you have in your office?
DK: We have lawyers with knowledge cutting across all of the sectors we work in. Oguntoye is the oil and gas specialist, I am the power expert and Jemide is the leading infrastructure and PPP lawyer. We have also won an award for the best real estate team in Nigeria for the year 2010, and are recommended by the International Financial Law Review in the areas of capital markets, project finance and M&A’s. Underpinning our practice is the fact that we are all first and foremost thorough corporate and commercial lawyers.
How do you help businesses gain a strategic advantage over competitors?
DK: The slogan on our website says: ‘’We mind your business’’. This simply means that we graft and immerse ourselves into the minutia of the client objectives, and partner with them until we get there. Engaging Detail is like hiring a few non-executive directors for the price of one.
Who would be a typical client?
AO: We like to work for organisations that are responsible and have a path worth pursuing. For us, beyond getting paid, we want to see tangible results from the engagement. We are selective about who we work for, ethics and values being a key determinant. We are known for showing clients the door when their ethical standards have dropped below par. We have clients that range from small start ups to large multinationals.
How do you pitch your firm to clients?
AJ: We sell them ‘proactive pills’ – that we are the lawyers who keep them out of trouble because it is cheaper to dot your i’s and cross your t’s from the onset – it reduces your litigation risk. We explain to them that full service firms are conflicted and have no incentive to sell you our proactive pill product because they still get paid even if the matter goes to litigation and they are often too quick to advise litigation rather than a consensual process. For us it is a loss when our client ends up in litigation since we do not do litigation.
We sell them complete ‘nursing care’ – that since we do not multitask (hopelessly devoted to the business side) we are available to attend their needs and have all the time in the world to think for them. We sell them our ‘intellectual base’ – bringing depth and experiential knowledge garnered from being focused on limited areas and swimming in similar waters over and over again.
What do you consider to be Detail’s highlights over the last few years?
Oguntoye: The hallmark of our practice is finding practical solutions and breaking new grounds. This year, for example, we found a novel way of transferring real estate in the REITs market to avoid transfer taxes and successfully convinced the Securities and Exchange Commission to approve the transaction on that basis. This will change the entire REIT market in the years to come.
Do you expect to expand over the next few years?
AJ: Numerical expansion is not our set objective – that will naturally happen with an increase in client demands. We also do not plan to expand to other cities or countries unless there is a strong business case. Our planned expansion is more about right sizing: the right people at the right level with distinct skill sets; improving client service with information technology; and visibility and positioning.
One of our strategic goals is to be the best place to work amongst law firms, so putting the right things in place to achieve this is more important than creating new offices or growing numerically. In all it should be about constantly finding ways to do it better and exceeding client expectations.