Up Close and Personal With Beverley Agbakoba-Oyejianya

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Beverley Agbakoba-Onyejianya is many things put perfectly together. She is a regulatory and compliance professional and a lawyer, called to the Nigerian and UK bar. She is on the panel of neutrals at the Lagos Multi Door Court and the Lagos Court of Arbitration. She has over twelve years professional experience in the banking and capital markets sectors in the United Kingdom and Nigeria.

She is currently Head of the Sports, Entertainment and Tech practice at Olisa Agbakoba Legal. She is a member of the Nigerian Economic Summit Group (NESG) Sports thematic Industry group on Alternative Dispute Resolution and Youth Policy Development. She is also a member of the Lagos Divisional Football Association. Her interest in sports and youth development led her to set up the Lagos Tigers Football Club (LTFC) in 2012.

In this exclusive chat with DNL Legal & Style, Beverley took us through her growing up, family, educational background and foray into grey areas of legal practice.

Her success story is inspiring.

DNL L&S: Who is Beverley Onyejianya?

Beverley: Beverley is many things. I still struggle to discover everything I am but in simple terms, I am a person who really loves life. I love interactions, I love family and I really treasure relationships. I used to be conflicted internally. Conflicted because I wasn’t sure how to marry who I was as a person with what I feel is a conventional career path. Initially, I was not sure if law was really for me, but not anymore. I love helping to solve problems, I love speaking up for what I believe in. I have quite a lot of interests, so it’s really about how to focus on the main interest because you really can’t be everything at once as much as you try.

I was born in Benin. I actually feel quite close to Benin City particularly. It’s like my spiritual birth place. My dad is Dr. Olisa Agbakoba SAN from Anambra State while my mum, Mrs. Lilian Agbakoba is from Delta State. She was born in Port Harcourt but grew up in Ibadan because her dad, late Mr. Francis Chike Halim was a permanent secretary in the old Midwestern  state. My mum and dad attended the University of Nigeria Nsukka (UNN). They were both law undergraduates when they met. Actually, their story is quite interesting even though they don’t like talking about it. They are interesting people who don’t conform to the typical norms.  They are very much their own people, to be honest, they are each other’s best friend. They don’t really need other people and they have always been like that. After they hooked up, they eloped. They eventually got married properly in the church after I was born.  After their wedding in London, they finished their studies and returned to Nigeria, started life in Lagos and have been in Lagos till today. I have two younger sisters; Dumebi and Nkechi.

Beverley is a mix of quite a lot of things and still trying to find her place in the world. 

DNL L&S: Tell us a bit about your educational background.

Beverley:  Because of my dad’s legal practice in maritime at Apapa in Lagos, my nursery school was with a very sweet Indian lady, Mrs. Basim. The Indian community is quite large in Apapa. I went from there to Saint Saviours School in Ebutte- Metta, another good school founded by the Missionaries. After my primary school, I went to Atlantic Hall Secondary School. It was a new school at the time in Ikeja, (now relocated to Epe).  I proceeded to the UK and did my A level at Rye St Anthony’s Catholic Girls school. It was very different from what I was used to, but I enjoyed the experience because I am a curious person and adapting is never a problem for me.  I can fit in anywhere to be honest.  After my A levels, I proceeded to the University of Nottingham. I had decided fully that I was pursuing a law degree and I suppose that was when reality hit because, I kept saying I want to study law but the reality came when I realized that law is actually not as fanciful as I thought. I realized that it actually requires a lot of reading, concentration and focus and I wouldn’t really say I had those when I was much younger to be very honest with you. I found it quite hard to focus then. I tended to be quite distracted, but I just knew that this is the part I had chosen for myself which I had to finish.

The first year is never really easy. You are going to be doing the foundational courses which I found so dull, but at the end of the day, discipline is about doing the things you don’t necessarily want to do but you know you have to do. I got stuck through it and then by 3rd year, things got a little interesting; picking electives that I wanted to do as opposed to the foundations. So, I suppose the more control I seemed to have about what area of law I wanted to go into, the more I enjoyed it.

I graduated from Nottingham and proceeded to do my masters in commercial law which I really enjoyed. I enrolled in Anti Money Laundering Law. I would say that I kind of had a bit of foresight because it was a very new course then and it sounded nice. I said to myself, “Anti Money Laundering Law is new and different, let me take this course.” And to be honest, it was that decision that literally set up my career path and which I credit for where I am today in terms of the bulk of work I do in my career as a lawyer. I really enjoyed Anti Money Laundering Law, Banking Law and Competition Law and I did well as a result of that.  I went on to do the Bar Vocational Course, moving to London now. That was also quite enjoyable. It was a more practical side of the law formative training. Things like advocacy, learning how to litigate, learning how to present, having the bar dinners, (they were such a big deal as a young lawyer) and many others. It was an interesting experience.

DNL L&S: What informed your decision to study law?

Beverley: By the time I was around 9 years, I knew I wanted to follow the legal line, but in a more fantasy kind of way because my parents who are both practicing lawyers are my biggest influencers. So, I said; “if that is what they do, that is what I want as well.” Then, my paternal grandfather was also a judge of the state high court. So, I had so much legal influence around me that it seemed almost inevitable for me to go the same way. I don’t know if it is because I felt I didn’t have a choice. I never got the impression that I was forced, not at all, if anything, I don’t even recall being told, “this is what you have to do.” I just felt so comfortable in that environment. I was raised to be curious, to ask questions and we always engaged in regular discussions at home. Generally, I would harass my parents at home, asking them everything about anything. Discussion was encouraged and I suppose that’s what helped my curiosity to become a lawyer, although I didn’t really know what type of law I was going to be practicing.

DNL L&S:  You have had about a decade long experience in Regulatory and Compliance both in the UK and in Nigeria, take us through those moments.

Beverley: After my studies, I decided in my mind that I would not go into core legal practice but pursue a career as a regulatory and compliance professional with the backing of my law degree and my bar vocational course. All that, because I enjoyed those Anti Money Laundering Law electives so much. I wanted to explore the Anti Money Laundering practice area. I finally completed the first stage of my training early 2000. Luckily for me, by 2002, a lot of jobs were coming up on Compliance. Compliance was like the buzz word in the city. So, I felt, “this is where I see myself working” and that pretty much kicked off a 15-year career in compliance.

Regulatory compliance has been my core. In fact, I would say that I cut my teeth so to speak in regulatory compliance. I got my foundational training in regulatory compliance at PWC in the UK. After working with PWC, I moved to Nigeria and started work at Chapel Hill Advisory Partners Limited, a well-known investment banking outfit in Lagos. From there, I went to Renaissance Capitals, another quite well known but may be not as popular now as they used to be. I had a very good time working at those places. I established compliance processes at Chapel Hill because it was a completely new department at the time I joined and I give credit to Mr. Bolaji Balogun the CEO. He is also very forward thinking. He knew that compliance was the way forward even though in Nigerian it was not even a requirement. Kudos to him for having that foresight then.

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Having worked for some time, I began to feel a bit restricted with compliance only, despite the fact that I had back to back very good career opportunities.  I knew immediately that if I really want to make the impact I am looking for, carrying on pure compliance wasn’t going to get me very far. As you know, it is one thing to recognize that this was a lucky break but to move forward, you really need to upskill. I decided to go to law school in Nigeria. It was not easy going back to school at the time because I was already in my mid-30s. I was also pushed a bit by my dad because he kept saying; “you know, you need to do this, you can’t keep running away from law practice.” So, listening to him, I thought to myself, “what’s the worst that can happen? I would have my call to bar and if I don’t like legal practice, I would just go back to compliance.” I completed my call to bar and the next conflict appeared. I knew I was a compliant person and I didn’t really feel like I was a lawyer in the real sense of the word and that was where I began to question my decision. Was I right to make this decision? I should have just stayed where I was comfortable. But you know what they say; nothing ever grows in a comfort zone. I began my legal practice and joined Olisa Agbakoba Legal (OAL) and it has been wonderful.

And by the way, I need to also mention that all the while, I had started and was also running my football club in the background. I enjoy getting involved in little things here and there, I can’t imagine a life that revolves around just work. There has to be something that appeal to my spirit beyond just being at work and being around family. So, I had started running this youth football academy very unexpectedly. Unexpectedly because, I never considered myself a sporty person. I did some school sports but I wouldn’t call myself an athlete by any means or even a sports enthusiast.

DNL L&S: Let’s talk about your venture into sports. Being a regulatory compliance lawyer who didn’t have any flare for sports, how did you become a sports entrepreneur and one of the very few sports lawyers in Nigeria?

Beverley:  If you follow the patterns in my life, you will discover that there are certain decisions I make that have unknowingly set me up for the future. A decision which seemed so ordinary, has actually put me in the position I am today; becoming a sports lawyer and entrepreneur in Nigeria. I can count with one hand the number of female sports lawyers in Nigeria.

Interestingly, it all started from me looking for a training centre for my son to attend when he was three years old back in 2012.  When I couldn’t find one, I took it upon myself to set up one. It is a case of; “if you don’t find what you are looking for, just create one.” First, I started the little kick about club. It was just an informal thing. But again, you never know that there is a need until you start supplying the service. I guess that is where great things come from. Luckily, people liked what I was doing and kids started attending. So, from wanting my son to interact with other children and play football and not just hiring a coach to come, I identified a need which is not just within my immediate network. Parents started coming on board to say they were interested in their children joining the growth of the club. It just kept on leading like a domino effect and before long, the sports club took a life of its own and eventually grew into a sports and leisure center which I co-founded with my mum in Sangotedo, Lagos State.  Eight years later, we are still here, growing. That was how I ventured into sports in the first instance.

Again, I started thinking; “how can we really make this program work? What can we do?” It wasn’t easy trying to create something that people would like. I had a lot of people who asked; “what is the difference? I can just keep my children in school.” So, I had to really go through a difficult process of justifying my present and things like that. You also have those loyal parents that believe in what you are doing and know that you are not doing this just to make money but to make an impact. They start asking questions like; “what next? When the child gets to a certain stage, what happens next?” Some would ask me; “would you represent these children later? What is the plan?” Someone even said, “why don’t you become an agent?”  I said no, “I don’t want to be an agent and I can’t even be an agent because it is a conflict of interest. You are not allowed to run a club and be an agent at the same time. So, I said to myself, “what other support can I provide or which other way can I educate myself so that I can also help my club get better?” I realized that there is really a gap in this market for proper sports lawyers. We don’t have well organized sports lawyers. There are issues around absence of contract and exploitation, I began to see where I could add so much value to this ecosystem. I said there has to be some role I can play outside of my club that would not conflict with the club and that’s pretty much how I decided that sports and entertainment law was the way forward.

I remember it was in 2017, my first time attending the National Economic Summit Group Conference that they decided to include sports as a category and part of the economy. I said to myself, if sports is now recognized as a viable sector of the economy, then it means that there is opportunity for people like me who want to provide expertise in that area and because I had already built some years in the academy, making the effort to learn the ins and outs of the global best practice in sports, I felt more than ready.  It is like starting from scratch, creating something new. Yes, there are other sports lawyers older than me, more senior to me, one of them is Chijioke Okolie, SAN who is actually my uncle, but for the most part, they operate in the sports law space on a part-time basis because to say you want to become a sports lawyer or go into sports law full-time, people would think you are crazy. Where are you going to get clients? Who is going to pay you? But I was just determined and yes, it’s been three years now, the sports law ecosystem in Nigeria even though very new, is gaining momentum quite considerably.

So, for me it was about really deep diving into the commercial aspect of sports and that’s where again everything kind of happened. I am that kind of person that doesn’t believe anything happen by coincidence. I would say that the stars where aligned because around the time, OAL launched the Sports and Entertainment Practice (as it was first known), there was sort of resurgence of interest, taking sports more seriously, via the National Economic Summit Group.   We all know that in Nigeria, a lot of innovation, business, industry transformation had come out of the National Economic Summit Group. For instance, that push towards making the telecom industry what it is today, all began in that little bubble called the National Economic Summit Group; where private and public sector came together and began to brainstorm ideas on how to make those industry great. So, all the things that had been done with other industry were now finally going to be applied to sports. I was just so lucky and fortunate that when I decided that sports law primarily is something I really want to get involved in, it just so happened that at the same time, things were also happening in think tanks like the National Economic Summit Group. It helps, when there is a concerted effort by a wider group of people to help drive something that you believe in. It doesn’t mean that the work may be so easy but it’s definitely going to be easier because you are not going to be the only person advocating. So, the message starts to permeate slowly but surely. Now, at least we are at the point where in 2020, saying you want a sports lawyer doesn’t sound strange.

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DNL L&S: How would you rate the Sports Industry in Nigeria?

Beverley:  The sports ecosystem is a billion-dollar industry.  Unfortunately, it is not fully exploited and remains highly untapped here in Nigeria. Whichever way you look at it, there is so much untapped potential. You don’t even have to talk about football alone, just look at the fitness industry, look at all the components of fitness. From the clothing to the fit bit; what you are wearing to the diet, let’s not forget the dietary side, the dietitians, the nutritionists, all these Instagram dietitians that have become successful why? Because there is an interest in the ‘body beautiful’ aesthetics, etc. All these people don’t realize that they play some role in the sports industry. So, it’s a lot bigger than we think. We think sports is just kids playing football on the field. Not at all. The sports physicians are part of the industry too.

Another aspect is training. when you talk about training and competence, we only have the National Institute for Sports in Nigeria which has one branch in Lagos State and you are thinking, a country of two hundred million people. Lagos alone has about twenty-one million people and you have one center in Lagos. What’s going on? Why are we not talking about building sports colleges? I am sure at least a million if not five million Lagosians appreciate sports in some way.  Not everybody wants to study professional courses or do business. Some people just want to do sports. When I heard that Jay Z through his company ROCNATION Sports is setting up a sports and entertainment management institute, I was not surprised. Can you imagine the thousands of people, not even just Americans but people from outside the country, including Nigerians that will fly to America for training? We are really missing a lot of opportunities right before our eyes and that is where Beverly the solutions-oriented person comes in. I see all these opportunities and as a lawyer and I’m ready to work with people who want to realize their dreams in sports and entertainment because there is so much you can do.

DNL L&S: What does it take to become a sports lawyer?

Beverley:  Everything begins with having an interest. You just need to be curious enough about the ecosystem of sports. You must not necessarily know everything. I certainly did not know everything before going in, I am still learning because the sports ecosystem is changing rapidly but my curiosity was picked because of my already existing dabbling into youth football. So, that led me to want to know more. I would say having a natural flair for the sports ecosystem always helps. But don’t assume that because you are a football fan, you would be a great sports lawyer. It’s really about wanting to provide solutions. It is about being passionate about getting the best for your client.

The ethical considerations are there but I would say, to practice as a sports lawyer, it really just involves mostly wanting to improve or wanting to help make the sporting industry a better place to operate in, because fundamentally you know that you are coming into an environment that is still a work in progress. You would not get as much work, so, you would obviously still have to maintain your other practice areas but it is the passion for the sports industry that might drive you. Going down the litigation route in Nigeria, you would struggle a little bit because honestly, the way sports has been operating so far, so many things get buried under the table, so many things kind of get settled quietly and silently or a lot of things don’t get settled at all. There has been so much going wrong and now it is time to put it right. So, I would say to anyone who is curious about sports law, a safe bet would be to first go in house, look for a sports media outlet. So many people are setting up credible corporate sports out fits in Nigeria now.  Let us not also forget sports journalism, there’s a lot of online sports journalism houses as well.

You need to network too. sports industry is actually very small. Networking while you are in a comfortable place like in a company would give you that security of pay and at the same time still give you that room to make your contacts. Because I am not an inhouse lawyer and I don’t work for a sports company, it took time before we actually began to do 100% sports law in my firm. But you have to be ready to just make the effort and sacrifice.

There would be time when you would have to say; “I just have to sacrifice a bit of pay while I climb that sports law ladder. I need to get my name out there.” It would pay off eventually.

DNL L&S: As a regulatory and compliance professional who has also become a sports law expert, what is your core specialization at OAL? 

Beverley:  My core area of expertise remains regulatory and compliance. It is a skill that doesn’t leave you. Because, apart from the fact that regulatory compliance underlies everything that we do, most of the area of our practice is regulated. Even the law itself is a regulated industry.  You can’t just become a lawyer; you need to reach a certain threshold. So, for me, regulatory and compliance is a core course skill set and it is a wonderful skill set to have. It just gives you that edge over a regular lawyer. For instance, not all lawyers may necessarily be great at drafting rules and regulations. That’s why you have specialists that go into policy making. I consider myself a regulatory and compliance professional, a policy maker who happens to enjoy things that are creative. So, I would say that my core skills are policy making, regulatory compliance and then where I thrive is in sports and entertainment. But, previously, when I worked in financial services sector, I really enjoyed that sector as well, I feel like it’s a sector I can go back to anytime and function well because that’s where I cut my teeth in regulatory and compliance but I left it for now. I won’t say I left it completely because I still work in that regard.

At OAL, I am the Practice Head of the SET Group. SET stands for Sports Entertainment and Tech and that is saying something like; “my Team is SET.” In every sense of the world, we are the SET team. When we first set up the specialist practice area, it was called Sports, Entertainment and Fashion. This is because again, my mind is very creative. I felt it would be great for us to be servicing the fashion industry but unfortunately, I kind of overestimated the fashion industry in Nigeria. The industry is set, but then what would you be doing with them? They need you to register their businesses and then after that, they tell you, “we don’t need you anymore,” or maybe they contact you for helping them hire people once in a while. It would have been different if we weren’t importing more in Nigeria and have a stronger manufacturing base, there may have been more. So, I switched from fashion to Tech.  Again, tech is another area I am interested in because just like the law on regulatory and compliance, it under cuts a lot of the stuffs we do. There is no day you wake up that you do not interact with tech one way or the other. Whether it’s your phone or other electronic devices, it has become an indispensable part of our lives. They say that data is the new oil, so, a lot of the new entrepreneurs that are coming out now leverage on tech. I said to myself that definitely, if I want to drive a niche practice that will provide specialist services, tech has to be a part of it. So, fashion was dropped and replaced with Tech.

DNL L&S: Having spent all your practice years in developing new frontier in legal practice, what would be your advice to young lawyers who are interested in grey areas like yourself?

Beverley:  You need to first of all tell yourself “I know nothing and I need to learn”

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because if you go in thinking, “this is a piece of cake; I can handle this,” that’s just the recipe for failure. You need to say, “I know nothing, what can I do to boost my knowledge?” Then start spending enough time trying to get technical knowledge.   Fortunately, 2020 is the best time ever in probably the history of humanity to learn and upskill. There are thousands of free courses online on almost every topic imaginable. Amazing organizations like the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) are constantly running free courses on Intellectual Property even in the new niche areas.  Intellectual Property for creatives, Intellectual Property for Artificial Intelligence, Intellectual Property on geographical indications; that’s like when a territory becomes known for specific service or product. You can learn practically everything online from the comfort of your home or office. So, learning is key and not just about learning to acquire a certificate, I am talking about strategic learning to be able to deliver on the technical side of the work you are going to do.

Networking is another aspect. I wrote an article; “Why Networking Is Still A Big Deal And Why You Need To Do It” which is on my LinkedIn profile. Networking is still the main way many lawyers get briefs, let’s call a spade a spade. That’s why certain law firms are more up there than others. Because they have established quality high profile network. The saying; your network is your net worth is very true. Now we are not able to meet physically unlike before but virtual meetings are still a great way of meeting people.  Nigerians tend to feel that people have a hidden agenda so, they are reluctant not even networking for the sake of having a relationship. So, network is crucial, whether you are a SAN or a new wig, your network is your net worth. Who you have access to, would determine how far you go in life. I need to add that it is not in a nepotistic way, where you are relying on handouts or relying on someone to keep slipping you a contract that you are not qualified for. You can have a very good network, have access to people that match and align with your interest and your capability.

DNL L&S: What does it feel like to be Dr. Olisa Agbakoba SAN’s daughter?

Beverley:  Honestly, there is an awareness that comes with that, because I know what he stands for. I know his values and a lot of him also reflects in my mum. They strongly really influence each other. So, I know what they both stand for really and truly and I live with it the way I have been raised. I try to deploy those values on a daily basis by being open to everybody, being kind, being honest and all that. I remember my father once said to me; “you know why Richard Branson is Richard Branson?  It’s because he talks to everybody.  He doesn’t discriminate, whether you are up there or down here.” And that stuck with me.  I don’t know how best to explain it, but I was just raised to be an open person. They didn’t lock rooms when we were growing up. We were never made to feel like we can’t go in here or we can’t bring up certain questions. We were raised to believe that we were not better than anybody, neither is anybody better than us. Because of the way we were raised, I don’t really take the fact of being his child as anything extraordinary. He is just a person who has strong values and that’s it really. I also believe that he became who he is because he worked hard. I cannot take credit for who he is because it’s got nothing to do with me. So, for me to carry it on my head as if it is anything sounds absurd. If for anything, I would say that his achievements intimidated me and rather than boast with it, it gave me cause to reflect on who I am. I always say to myself, that I have to be my own person, I must prove to be someone on my own. So, if anything, his person inspired me indirectly although through intimidation to be my own person.

Now, I don’t really get as much as I used to when I was much younger. I am trying to be my own person and establish myself in my career. I mean, I am known for sports law; it couldn’t be more different to maritime. But at the same time, I keep the values that “no one is better than you and you are not better than anybody.”

Admittedly it does help to be a daughter to someone that’s very inspiring without a doubt, it would rub off on you, but in my case, it has pushed me in the direction of being an independent thinker and wanting to carve out my path and wanting to make my own impact as well. So that at least they would say he did this with my mum because I always look at them as a joint unit. Together they raised children that have made a contribution to society not just living off their father’s name. Not at all.

DNL L&S: You recently turned 40, what are you grateful for?

Beverley: I am grateful for my life, my health, my   family, my friends, the opportunity to live another day and try to fulfil my purpose.

DNL L&S: How do you relax?

Beverly:  I won’t lie to you; I’m only just learning about selfcare. Let me even use this opportunity since this is an interview to even preach about the benefits. I feel like I’m a convert to the word; ‘selfcare’. I had the same school of thought that you have to keep working hard, just keep going and not stop. No time to rest, no time to sleep and all that. It is all rubbish because I have had periods in my life where I had nervous breakdowns and I knew that it was stress related. Naturally, I am very energetic and many say I don’t stop. So, during this lockdown period I was forced to learn how to do selfcare.  I developed new outlets that I don’t want to let go of. Like writing, I discovered that I love writing not just like a technical article but personal writing. It’s a form of personal expression and you have to be quite willing to let your vulnerable side show. During the lockdown, I wrote a book; “40 lessons I learned by 40”, which I haven’t yet released. It was very personal because I was talking about personal issues. I remember my Aunt said to me, “are you sure you want to do that? Won’t you be revealing too many things?” I said I am not revealing anything that I am not meant to reveal. Anything I reveal is a teaching point. I have realized now that more of personal writing is soothing.

Another thing I discovered is listening to podcasts.  In fact, it’s funny because all the things that I do to relax are actually active ways of relaxing. So, pod casting is another way I relax. I love sharing and listening to stories. I actually started listening to podcast about two years ago but I would say with more intensity in the last year, especially during the lockdown. At the end of the day when I want to wind down, I get into bed and go to my favourite podcast channel, I have quite a few I listen to; religious, catholic daily meditations, self-help motivational and they help settle me. Then I thought to myself; Why don’t you start your own podcast? So, this is me again trying to always go above and beyond. I started my own podcast in May, 2020; called “Developing Your A Game”. Again, this lockdown period has kind of been a blessing. I know there has been a lot of sadness death but at the same time wherever there is sadness there is still joy. You just have to find joy even in the darkest of time otherwise you will feel hopeless and as Christians we should always have hope. I actually have a talent for talking to people like media wise. Podcast then became and is still relaxing for me. So, Reading, writing podcasting and chatting with the kids; this one is always very funny. And I play football with the kids in the house. Yes, different ways of relaxing depending on my mood.

Beverley can be reached on:
Beverley@onyejianya.com

Social Media handles:
Instagram – maxxyb
Twitter – MaxxyB
LinkedIn – linkedin.com/in/agbakobaonyejianya

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