Women in Law Interview: Adaku Ufere

Rising to the top in the legal field can be a difficult task. The significance of any lawyer being awarded “Attorney of the Year” by the African Legal Awards would mean that you are the best in Africa. The ultimate recognition for your work. This is a dream for any lawyer or aspiring lawyer, including myself, but for Adaku Ufere this has been a reality. Adaku was named Attorney of the Year by The African Legal Awards 2017, literally making her the best attorney on the continent. She is the youngest person to ever win this award, as well as the first Nigerian.

A few months ago I came across Adaku Ufere’s interview as Energy Practice Leader for Centurion Law Group. In the interview, Adaku spoke about her fascination with the oil and gas industry.  An international oil & gas lawyer, Adaku holds an LLB from the University of Nigeria, a BL from the Nigerian Law School and an LLM in Oil and Gas from the University of Aberdeen. She is a member of the Nigerian Bar and the International Bar Association. I was particularly drawn to her interest and focus in oil, gas and power. To say that she has inspired me would be an understatement, I admire everything that she stands for, her work and I relate to her feminism.

After reading her blog “Third World Profashional”, I felt even more connected to her and I was deeply moved by her journey. So when I asked her if she would be open to being interviewed by me, what I did not expect was her prompt and warm response. Below is the interview between For Women in Law (FWIL) and Adaku Ufere (AU), verbatim.

FWIL:What inspired you to study law?
AU:Very cliché, but John Grisham did. When I was 9 years old I won a Nigeria wide essay competition, in the essay we had to write our autobiography. My essay was based on a long, full life as the matriarch of a large family and dying at the age of 107 (I had just read A Woman of Substance and I’m sure Emma Harte influenced my story a great deal). Very macabre for a pre-teen, but I really enjoyed envisioning my future. My prize was a box set of John Grisham books, and the first book I read was ‘A Time to Kill’ and from then on, I knew I wanted to be a lawyer.

FWIL:Why a specific interest/focus in oil, gas and power?
AU:Growing up in Nigeria, it is very difficult to escape the large shadow the oil and gas industry casts over the entire country. The machinery of the economy is so dependent on petroleum really heightens your awareness of the importance of oil, gas and power to a nation.

It was a specific person and a specific legal matter however, that made me abandon a career as a Maritime Litigation Lawyer to focus on oil and gas law. The former Nigerian Minister of Petroleum Resources; Diezani Allison-Madueke, was definitely an inspiration. The heights she reached as a woman in the oil and gas industry was heady stuff and I was very impressed and enthused by that. At the same time, I was representing a multinational oil company that had just spilled oil in the Niger Delta and watching this company that was clearly at fault get away with committing such an environmental disaster convinced me that this was an industry I wanted to infiltrate and fix up.

FWIL:As a black woman in law, would you say that gender bias in the legal field is real? What has been some of your observations in this regard?
AU:I would struggle to relate on a racial level, as I have practiced law mostly in countries in Africa which are majority black and therefore do not have a race issue. But speaking as a woman in law, I’d say the gender bias we face as female lawyers is very curious because even though there are increasingly more female lawyers than male around the world, the top legal roles are still almost exclusively male.

Law was historically male dominated, however, as technology and the sciences became more widespread and less specialized, I think women were encouraged to study Law (as a “softer” discipline) as opposed to the more “difficult” subjects. This has led to an actual proliferation of female lawyers over male ones.

For example, in Australia, The Law Society of NSW in their National Profile of Solicitors 2016 report conducted by Research and consultancy firm Urbis, compiling data on factors such as age, gender, location and sector of legal professionals found that female lawyers slightly outnumbered males in 2016, with 35,799 (50.1 per cent) compared with 35,710 (49.9 per cent).

The Report also said women are entering the profession at a higher rate than men, with a 34.2 per cent increase in the number of female lawyers since 2011 compared with 15.6 per cent for men.

A 2017 Law360 Glass Ceiling Report has also stated that 50.3 percent of law school grads in the United States are women.This advantage in numbers has however not translated to leadership roles; male General Counsels, Partners, Managing Partners outnumber women at a staggering ratio.

The gender bias is definitely real and as a woman who heads an Energy Practice of a major law firm it is very curious to walk into negotiation meetings and more often than not, be the only woman in the room. Or going to conferences and seminars and having majority male only panels. There might be one woman introduced into the mix for a bit of diversity, but it is always very obvious that these are male dominated events.

FWIL:More women are now venturing into male-dominated territories, and it’s beautiful to witness. In order to continue to witness more of these audacious and passionate women entering these fields, we need to support each other. This is not always the case, however. What advice would you give to a young woman entering the work environment and who is facing black-balling and “hate” from older/senior women in the work place?

I have heard times without number of this view that women do not support each other or that older women “hate” younger women, but I have barely seen this play out in real life. It seems to be some sort of propaganda perpetuated by patriarchy to keep women in constant competition. Patriarchy tries to create a society where women have to “compete” for male attention. By drumming into our heads constantly that we are goods in a buyers’ market, therefore only the best of the best will get “chosen”, the intention is that it will lead women to think they have to obstruct the path of their fellow women to achieve anything, not even necessarily male attention, but whatever advantages life may bring.

The onset and the expansion of feminism is telling us that that is not the case. There is more than enough to go around and that false perception that there are only a few deserving women who will be rewarded with men, riches etc, therefore creating the imaginary situation where the next woman is your competition, is a lie. This is a lie spun by patriarchy to ensure that women are in constant competition for goods of less quality. Take from that what you will, lol.

Most of the support I have received in my career have been from women and I have paid that forward by in turn mentoring a lot of young women and offering whatever support I can. Advice I will give to young women facing hostility from an older woman is to not automatically assume it’s a gender-based conflict and to look inwards first. It might be your attitude to work, it might be your work product, it might be that the older woman has her own personal issues which are spilling over into the office, it might even be that she is just a vile person who takes no joy in anything. Whatever it is, make the effort to first eliminate any of these issues before you settle on the fact that it might be because of your gender. If that, by some stretch is the case, I’ve never personally had to deal with that, but my only suggestion would be to perform your duties to the best of your ability and to render yourself so useful that there cannot be the slightest question as to your capability.You can do very little to change people, you can only change yourself and I’d suggest you focus on that. If the person’s attitude is exerted over you to a point where your output is threatened, your only recourse would be to lay a complaint via the appropriate channels.

In 2017 you were named Attorney of the Year by The African Legal Awards. Can you describe how it feels to hold this title? Does it place more pressure on yourself to continue to uphold the high standard you have created for yourself?
AU:The feeling is actually indescribable. I got the email letting me know I’d won while I was in a negotiation in Madrid and I nearly screamed in a roomful of clients and opposing counsel.Right now, months after…it feels more like a responsibility than pressure. A responsibility to myself to continue to surpass my own achievements. I continue to set the bar for myself higher and higher each year and even when I think “okay Adaku, you’ve peaked now”, I go and move the bar a little higher. So, it is made me very confident in my ability to not only excel but continue to excel.

FWIL:The journey of a legal professionals is not always an easy one. What are some of the lessons you have learned along the way and how have they shaped your outlook on life?
AU:I’ve learned that even the smartest people in the room don’t always know what they’re talking about and a lot of people are genuinely just muddying along and making the best of things.

I’ve gone up against some of the very top lawyers in the world and as a lawyer with just a decades’ worth of experience, have sometimes gone in panicky and thinking, “this is the day I will be disgraced”, and I’ve discovered sometimes those lawyers are as nervous as I am.

I’ve also learned and begun to appreciate how dynamic the legal profession is, it’s like the gateway to the world. A background in law has literally prepared you for anything. It’s made me less apprehensive about possibly switching careers, as I feel I am prepared for anything.

FWIL:What is the best advice you would give to aspiring legal professionals?
AU:Intern while you’re in university. Theoretical law is nothing like law in practice and a lot of law students who might have been star students while in school, graduate and are barely able to cope as transactional and dispute resolution lawyers. I didn’t intern as much as I should and that is one regret I have.

Also, don’t feel like you have to pick a specialty and stick to it. I’ve gone from Intellectual Property law, to Maritime Law, to Oil & Gas Law, to Entertainment Law, to FCMG ad back to Oil & Gas Law. Law is a very wide spectrum and lawyers are equally capable wherever they find themselves and should not be afraid to explore the possibilities.

FWIL:As a legal professional, it is quite important to effectively use your network as your network could define your net worth. How do you meet other legal professionals and what are some of your effective networking skills?
AU:LinkedIn has been a great resource for me and I’ve made amazing connections using it as a tool. Also joining professional organizations and being an active member is invaluable. Attending conferences, seminars, workshops and also participating are essential.

I’m not the greatest at small talk but it is a requirement if you intend to network effectively. If you’re not good at that it’s worth it to join your local ToastMasters group or any group which teaches you how to speak in public. They’re not only good for learning to make speeches but also for engaging in pointed conversations.

Always have your business cards on you and have your signature elevator speech. Also practice a tailored ice-breaker. It could be a joke, an observation, criticism etc. But have something you utilize in beginning conversations, which can then segue into your elevator speech and hopefully an enlightening conversation.

FWIL:What does the term “role model” mean to you? Which phenomenal woman in law would you call your role model?
AU:The term “role model” to me means anybody who inspires me by the way they have lived their lives to be the best version of myself. Anybody whose actions I would emulate without question and whose guidance in my life will be welcomed.

Hilary Rodham Clinton, Michelle Obama, Kamali Harris and Amal Clooney are phenomenal women in law who inspire me every single day. They have brilliantly combined thriving, stratospheric careers with family lives and public scrutiny. While standing firm and not forsaking their femininity. They are also ardent champions of women’s rights and gender equality and as a collective make a brilliant case for the equality of the sexes.


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