Why I Became an In-house Counsel – Mrs. Tolu Oni

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Mrs. Tolu Oni is the Head Legal Department of Health Plus Limited, Nigeria’s first Integrative Pharmacy and the fastest growing pharmacy chain in West Africa. Prior to settling as in-house counsel, Tolu  had had experience in both litigation and corporate practice while working in private law firms. Having had experience as both a litigation counsel and corporate practice, Tolu eventually went in-house practice. Does she regret this? How did she manage to take a decision to become an in-house counsel, what has been the experience so far?  would she consider returning to private practice and litigation? What has been her major achievements, her challenges and furture aspirations.  These and many more are the insights we got from this exclusive interview with Mrs. Tolu Oni.

DNL L&S: May we meet you ma

Mrs. Oni: My name is Tolu Oni (nee Odeyemi). I am from Ilesa in Osun State but more importantly Nigerian. I was born and bred in the great city of Ibadan where I attended Richmab International School and Command Secondary School Bode Igbo Ibadan. I proceeded to the great Obafemi Awolowo University, the Nigerian Law School and then had my LLM at the University of Lagos.

DNL L&S: What informed your decision to pursue a career in Legal Profession?

Mrs. Oni: My Guardian, Mr. Kolawole Olawoye, SAN influenced me greatly. My biological father had passed on to glory in 1997 and I had the opportunity to be around Mr. Olawoye, SAN who became a mentor and father to me. I visited his office frequently and liked the sanity, ambience, cleanliness of his office space and how people respected him a lot. Because I was also very assertive and bold, he also commended my confidence and oratory skills from time to time. I guess that influenced my decision to study law and practice the profession.

DNL L&S: Can you still recall your first Court appearance?

Mrs. Oni: O Yes, I can. I was working at Bukola Durojaiye & Co. It was at the Lagos State High Court, Ikeja. I was unperturbed because during my court attachment in law school, I had watched and carefully listened to all kinds of lawyers. I also rehearsed countless times. Wrote some of my lines so as not to forget them. I had learnt the acceptable language of the court too. Moreso, my matter on that day was coming up for hearing of an innocuous motion that was unopposed. I think it was a motion to regularize our processes. I thought I had everything under control until my matter was called. My heart travelled to my motherland but I got a grip of myself eventually and moved my motion successfully without any help. I felt like a champion and looked forward to appearing in court more. So, unlike many that had it rough, mine was really easy and I was excited afterwards.

DNL L&S: Tell us about your journey so far in your career?

Mrs. Oni: I started my legal career with the firm of Bukola Durojaiye & Co in 2009 shortly after my call to bar. At the firm I had the opportunity of appearing in various hierarchy of courts. I was thought how to prepare court processes and all of that. It was a very busy period for me because I was actually also trying to integrate myself into the profession and really carve my own niche.  Two years after, in 2011 I left the firm to join a company called Confederated Facilitators Limited as in-house counsel and within a short period, I started acting as the Company Secretary too. My stay was short-lived because I needed to work in a more challenging environment, I had also not decided whether to develop myself along the line of litigation practice or to remain as a company secretary. So, in 2012, I left the company and joined another law firm, RouQ & Company, shortly after I joined the firm, I was again seconded to Nigerdock Nigeria PLC as in-house counsel. Working with a full service law firm like Rouq and Company and being seconded to Nigerdock PLC exposed me to so many international commercial transactions as well as corporate dispute resolution mechanisms.  I had the rare privilege of learning the rudiments of both corporate commercial practice and dispute resolution. So, while I did more of corporate commercial activities at Nigerdock, I had other assignments in the firm that also exposed me to more of litigation and alternative dispute resolution. I had lots of on the job training. Basically I became comfortable with the two sides of legal practice but I had to develop my expertise in one aspect. In 2015, I made that decision and joined Health Plus Limited to start its Legal Department and that is where I am presently.

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DNL L&S: At what point did you decide to become an in-house counsel and what informed that decision?

Mrs. Oni: As early as 2011 I was already nursing that feeling. This was informed by my experiences in litigation practice. I got tired of the length of time matters took in court, frivolous adjournments, unprepared counsel and the likes. I lost the initial enthusiasm very fast but I had to be sure that I really would be fine being in-house. So, I took the remaining periods to really confirm that where I belong is in corporate legal practice. By 2015, I was convinced and I took the step.

DNL L&S: What is your responsibility as the Legal Manager at Health Plus Limited?

Mrs. Oni: To keep it simple, I lead the legal department and we handle everything legal and a little more. I was fully involved in the company’s recently concluded $18,000,000 equity capital raise from start to finish. Health Plus has given me a window of opportunity to explore and achieve beyond my own expectations. As the fastest growing pharmacy chain in the whole of West Africa presently, there is limitless opportunity for growth and development. The challenge on the job has been greatly rewarding and one can only push for more boundaries.

DNL L&S: Having tasted the two divides, private practice and in house counsel, do you regret ever leaving private practice?

Mrs. Oni: Hmm, I recall that at one of the moot courts I participated in law school, the judge had been particularly proud of me. In fact, in my very early years at the bar, my boss had on several occasions also commended my advocacy skills and urged me to ensure that I stayed in litigation. However, I couldn’t deal with the length of time matters took in court, frivolous adjournments, unprepared counsel and the likes. I recall how in those early days, I would almost cry each time there is a flimsy excuse to have a matter adjourned. I would say to my colleagues that if I ever become a judge, I will punish many lawyers and they just laugh at me. The whole stress of having to cope with so many of these delays wore me out too early and these made me take a bow. I do not regret leaving private practice even though it has its advantages. Your client listens to you and will heed your advice in most cases. I am not sure I would trade the area I am developing my expertise on for private legal practice and the whole going to court thing. But I guess that is how life is; we all have our individual God’s given dream and once you are convinced of yours, there would really not be room for regrets and the likes. So, for now, no regrets.

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DNL L&S: Would you be going back to private practice at some point?

Tolu Oni: I do not think so.  But you can never say never. I had at some point considered volunteering with a private law firm just to keep abreast but I have not given it a serious thought. But, if I ever have to return to private practice, litigation will be seriously toned down. I would prefer to focus on corporate practice/company secretarial services within the firm.

DNL L&S: What would you say is your most significant achievement so far?

Mrs. Oni: Starting and successfully completing the $18,000,000 equity capital raise for my company is quite significant. There are so many others but this stands out for me.

DNL L&S: What are some of the challenges you have faced in your career as a lawyer and how did you overcome them.

Mrs. Oni: Deciding which path to tow was indeed challenging for me. The saying – Jack of all trades, master of none is real. I was a promising young lawyer and I did beyond average in the various aspect of the profession for a Rookie. I was not sure about leaving litigation thinking of the accolades I got from my boss, senior colleagues and even judges. All I had to do was to first be clear on what I wanted, study successful lawyers who had done well in such field and my decision became easy.

DNL L&S: What does it take to have a successful career as a lawyer?

Mrs. Oni: It is knowing your onions, by this I mean the basics of the profession. Aspire to be an authority in at least one aspect of your field. Then know who and where to get timely information and help for all other aspects you are not great at. Most importantly do not forget to seek wisdom and grace from God.

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DNL L&S: What are some of the values you live by?

Mrs. Oni: Integrity is key for me. A good name is better than silver or gold. I try to keep my Yes as Yes and No as No. One lie will require many more to cover up. I remember one vivid occasion when I was dishonest with a friend who then questioned me further, I couldn’t fabricate more lies so I had to come clean and I decided that I will be very transparent henceforth.

DNL L&S: What inspire you?

Mrs. Oni: Results, they drive me to do more. In my career, family, social and business life, results are key for me. As long as I put in effort and it brings result, I am motivated to continue. Conversely, once I am not seeing result, I get really discouraged.

DNL L&S: Who are your role models in the legal profession?

Mrs. Oni: Professor Olanrewaju Fagbohun, SAN Barrister Kolawole Olawoye, SAN, Professor Ademola Popoola and Mr Ehis Agboga in no particular order. These people have made me strive to be better and I have one or two things to always pick from their lives both privately and professionally.

DNL L&S: How do you joggle your work schedule and your home front?

Mrs. Oni: So, I hear that there is no such thing as work-life balance but work-life integration. We are products of choices. You decide and choose what matters to you most at every point in time. There are time when you need to pay more attention to the family and there are time when you pay more to the work. You just juggle them and prioritize. I have also learnt to get a lot of support from family members, friends, domestic staff etc. I also provide support in return. It hasn’t been easy but I am coping really well.

DNL L&S: If you were not a lawyer what other profession would you have loved to venture into?

Mrs. Oni: Theatre Arts, I love drama and I love to talk. I am relatively very lively and I can change your mood if I want to. I know I would have succeeded well in the art industry. Trading, I did a lot of that prior to becoming very busy and I know I have skills in that aspect. I think it is basically because I am hyperactive. I love to be up and doing and it just comes naturally like that.

DNL L&S: Tell us a little about your family.

Mrs. Oni: I am married to the most amazing gentleman on earth and we are blessed with two lovely children who, by the way are as hyperactive as I am.

DNL L&S: How do you relax?

Mrs. Oni: I relax by reading books, hanging out with friends over drinks and engaging in intellectual discourse and spending time with family.

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