Three years after his call to the Alberta Bar, Charles Osuji became the sole owner of a thriving law firm in Canada. With almost zero experience in law firm management, Charles has not only sustained the growth and integrity of the firm of Osuji & Smith but has won several awards, including the Top 25 Most Influential Lawyers in Canada in 2020 and the most recent, 2022 Edition of “The Best Lawyers in Canada: Ones to Watch!”
In this interview with DNL Legal & Style, Charles tells of his journey to the point of becoming one of the most sought after lawyers in Canada, his goals and aspirations as well as his desire to have a law office large enough to accommodate and stabilize as many immigrant lawyers as possible.
Charles is an interviewer’s delight.
DNL L&S: May we meet you?
Charles: My name is Charles Osuji, originally from Amucha in Njaba local government area of Imo state, Nigeria. I come from a family of ten including my parents. I am the seventh out of eight children. I tell people that I was born into an adult family. My immediate older sister was older than ten by the time I was born. I came into the world having a lot of big brothers and big sisters all willing to show me love. That really helped me in my journey too because I had many role models in the family. By the time I was born my oldest brother was almost done in the university, so I had a lot of people to look up to.
I went to Imo state university for my law degree then went to Enugu Campus for my law school. But by then, I was already here. I was going back and forth because my family wanted me to finish my studies back home before coming here. I finished my youth service at Ebonyi state, then came here permanently in 2011 and started my licencing journey. It is a whole different beast all together getting qualified as a lawyer here. That is my story. Very humble beginning, I wasn’t very ambitious, but I was very mindful of opportunities as they presented themselves. I was very mindful of every opportunity that came my way, hence where I am today.
DNL L&S: What motivated you to study law?
Charles: Well, I became a lawyer by elimination. I eliminated things I couldn’t do, and I was left with law. I come from a family of health professionals. Mum is a nurse, I have doctors and pharmacists, so they wanted me to be a doctor. A typical African home, especially when your dad is a teacher but, I just couldn’t get mathematics, I couldn’t get sciences, it just wasn’t working. It was a struggle for quite some time and at some point, I decided to rebel and eliminate the things I wasn’t good at. In the English Literature class for instance, I was the first but in chemistry I would be at the back. I loved to read, I remember back in high school, if we didn’t have any teacher in class, I would come in the front of everyone and I would get a novel and read to everyone. I quickly realised that the universe was telling me something.
Again, I grew up under the tutelage of one of my brothers, Rev. Fr. Dr. Anthony Osuji, who is a catholic priest. He raised me like his son and very guardedly. So, as young as six or seven I only had the choice of reading or sleeping. So, again quite early on, that love for reading was engraved in me and when I started law, it became very natural because success in law school has a lot to do with your capacity to read for long and digest a lot of materials. I did well in school and in practice. I also realized that I am good with people, I have very good people skill which is something that upcoming lawyers should be mindful of. Emotional intelligence is not something that you learn in law school. Having to navigate around managing people, managing different kinds of individuals. So, I had that ability as well. May be as we proceed, I would get to talk about the things I have done differently as well that have got me to where I am today.
DNL L&S: You are licensed to practice law in Nigeria and Canada, has that been your goal from the onset of your legal education?
Charles: I visited Canada for the first time when I was in my first year in the university. The plan was that when I was done, I would come here and practice, so I had that at the back of my head. I knew I was not going to be in Nigeria ultimately. So, that was the goal. And I would come here every summer to visit. ultimately the plan was, finish university back home, finish youth service and come to Canada to practice. So, I started early to look into what it took to licence and get the qualifications here and I also started building contacts from that early on.
DNL L&S: What is the process of getting licenced to practice law in Canada?
Charles: If you are called to the bar in Nigeria, when you come here, the first thing you do is to apply to a body called the Federation of Law Societies. The FLS would require two things from you; letter of good standing from your local NBA branch showing that you are licenced to practice, and you paid all your dues. Then you also require a letter of good standing from the Supreme Court and then finally they would need your transcript from law school and university. Once they have all of that, they would provide you with the courses that you need to write. Those courses are provided and governed by a body called the National Committee on Accreditation (NCA). NCA will give you five, six or seven courses to pass depending on how well you did in law school. They include, constitutional law administrative law, professional ethics criminal law and foundation. You would be given at least 3 or 4 years to write those courses. Every year, you have the opportunity of writing them three or four times. It is self-study and it is open book, so you can carry your textbooks to the exam hall. When I started taking the exams, I thought they were joking or that it was part of the tests, that someone would be watching somewhere to see if I would open that book. Because I still had the mentality of the manner we write exam back home, I read as if it was a closed book, as if we were in law school. I read the materials four five times and in the exam hall people had their books. You could come with your notes, come with your textbooks. The only thing you are not allowed to refer to was electronic materials but everything else could be on your desk and you are literally writing from the textbook. So, I found the exam very easy. Many people wouldn’t because once you hear it is open book you have the natural tendency to not take it seriously thinking that the answers are there but then you realize that the core of the assessment is in knowing what the question is, not necessarily having the books, because you can have the books without knowing what the answer is being expected of you. So, I challenged those exams in two months and finished
The next step would be the articles. Articles is remotely equivalent to the internship that is incorporated in the law school curriculum back home, so, back home you would do chambers attachment and court attachment for about three months, but here, you would have to do the chambers attachment for twelve months. I think with covid they have reduced it to eight months if allowed. Now, this is an opportunity for the student to have a hands-on experience going to courts, writing memos, meeting with clients and basically doing everything a lawyer would do but with supervision of your principal.
During the twelve months articling process, you would now challenge the bar exams. Every Province in Canada has a different bar exam. In Alberta where I am, they call it the CPLED. Again, it is an open book exam. Twelve courses or more, they may have changed things around since I wrote the exams six or seven years ago. The idea is, you write the exam for a period, and you are also challenged on oral advocacy, so you appear before a mock judge and make applications and you also do negotiation. Once you are done with that program, then you are called to the bar. That is the process. It takes you about two to three years.
DNL L&S: On the issue of getting licenced in Canada, is it possible for lawyers practicing in Nigeria to get licenced in Canada while still in Nigeria, if yes, how?
Charles: Because of the articling component of the process, it’s going to be very difficult if not impossible for someone in Nigeria to be licenced here. You could be in Nigeria and write the exam all thanks to Covid. Before covid, you couldn’t write the first leg of the exams from overseas. You had to be here, I think there is another location in the UK and South Africa, just very limited location you can write the exam but with Covid, a lot of our colleagues are now writing exam remotely from Nigeria. But that is the only thing you can do in Nigeria. For articles, you must be in person. CPLED, the actual exam, you have to be here in person, unless you come, finish the program and then move back if you want to.
DNL L&S: In Canada where you are now based, you are the owner of Osuji and Smith, which has become one of the best law firms in Calgary. How did you achieve this feat?
Charles: Well, I joined the firm in 2013, as part of the articling process, I was looking for a place to article and I connected with a few people, who connected me with a few people who connected me with Mr. Smith who was looking for a student at the time. I must say this, it is a big deal to find placement for articles here especially for internationally trained lawyers. It’s challenging coming from overseas to compete with people that went to school here and have built connections from high school, kindergarten, and all that. That is why in my firm we have given at least ten people the opportunity in the last three or four years Presently, I have three or four students already because I understand their pain point, I know how difficult it is to find articles.
So, I ultimately met with Mr. Smith and unfortunately, he had found someone else already but because he had already promised to meet with me, we met. I think the meeting started at 5pm and ended at midnight. That means we connected right away. He was a teacher in his other life, my dad was a teacher, he is a Christian and I am, I am a Christian. So, we connected on different levels even though he is more than forty years older than I am. Ultimately, he took a shot at me and gave me an opportunity to start the following day. One year into my articles with him, I quickly stood out. To me, that was my life and I poured everything I had in it. I was doing seven days a week, in fact, I found an apartment that was three minutes away from the office so that I could go in and out, even at midnights. I put in a lot of energy and as an employer, when you see that from an employee, you are moved by it. You know immediately that this is the kind of person that would help you succeed, the kind of person that would tie up all the loose ends in your practice, especially as Mr. Smith was already looking at retiring. One year and half into practice he would come to me for directions, he would not make any strategic decision at all without talking to me and getting my opinion on it.
Anyhow that relationship blossomed from there. Two years in, I bought into the partnership because I became the one bringing in the most money to the firm and two and half years later, there was an opportunity to buy the firm from him. He was already negotiating with other people, and I wasn’t interested to be honest with you. In fact, one of the people he was negotiating with took me out for dinner and told me, “Charles don’t worry your job is secured”. I was like, “thank goodness”. The conversations fail apart and he asked me whether I was interested, and I told him right away that I was not interested. Coming from Nigeria, I was about twenty-six, only two years into practice and someone was telling me to run a big practice. It was very risky; I hadn’t run anything in my life. The only business I had run in my entire life at the time was a photography business back in high school, but that business fell apart because when we graduated, I had a stack of pictures that nobody claimed. I had every reason on the book to refuse the opportunity buy the firm. I was quite young, I did not have any strong professional network but then I defaulted back to my oldest brother Dr Joseph Osuji and to my mentor Bruce Randal and to a few people that are way older, more successful visionaries in my life, and it took them seconds to appreciate the opportunity. They were like, “Charles, go for it, you are not going to regret this, the worse that can happen is you go to the bank and borrow money.” They simplified the opportunity. These are people that you love, and trust and they are telling you that they would stand by you. And for Mr. Smith himself, he didn’t understand why I was reluctant. He kept telling me how well I had done for myself and how taking the opportunity was a no brainer for him. So, I took on the opportunity, but I still had one leg in and one leg out and that was why I only bought into the partnership for about a year because I wasn’t sure of taking everything for myself, I wanted to still have him by the side just in case anything went wrong. Later on, I realized I could do it. This was a question of changing the way things were run in the firm, being a good person being kind to the employees, making sure that you carried everybody along and focusing on excellence. Doing the work that you are expected to do for clients and keeping your promise, basic things.
I eventually entered the relationship with him, bought him out, in fact I made him a healthy offer and promised him that I would try to keep his legacy by having his name there on the door for as long as possible. That is why you still see Smith in the name and people still think it’s still a partnership but it’s not. He is the happiest retired lawyer I have ever come across. He still comes around and every week or two, we go out for lunch. He deserves what he is getting right now because what he has done is to defy a lot of prejudices out there. An old white man sitting across from a young black Nigeria with a heavy accent at the time. At the time, he didn’t know where I went to law school, he hadn’t heard about Imo State University. In fact, the only thing he knew about Nigeria was Biafra war and Niger Delta and that the population of Lagos is almost equivalent to the population of the entire Canada. He knew those three things at the very least, but he saw something in me that I couldn’t see myself and gave me the opportunity. That to me is massive and that is why I take mentorship very seriously. I give people a chance as much as I can. If you come to my office, there are students all over the place, some are coming out from the basement some from the back. If there is space, I am putting a student there because of the inspiration from my experience with him. So, what we are doing too is to change the narratives that you could actually have a black man and a white man come together and focusing on things that matter and watch magic happen.
DNL L&S: The journey of Osuji and Smith appears divine, and I think that’s the best way to put it. Are there such opportunities existing for immigrants coming to Canada to own firms and succeed like you did?
Charles: Yes, I co-founded an organization of Nigerian trained lawyers in Calgary, the Calgary Association of Nigerian Lawyers and we are over a hundred and fifty people in Calgary alone. In Calgary, there is over 160 Nigerian trained lawyers and half of them have their own firms. So, the opportunity is there. This is a wonderful country where hard work is rewarded. Given the training giving to Nigerian trained lawyers, they succeed when they come here.
DNL L&S: You are one of the celebrated lawyers in Canada, what is the secret of your success?
Charles: One thing I noticed about our people is that we don’t know how to celebrate ourselves. I think maybe it is a cultural thing. We tend to be very modest about our achievements and accomplishments. When I came here, I realized that personal branding is very important. I could have been doing everything I am doing without anyone knowing about it and all of these awards would not have happened. But I quickly realized at the very beginning that it is one thing to be good at what you do and another thing to showcase and put your name out there and focus on personal branding such as having a LinkedIn page, Facebook business page and posting accomplishments. Nigerians will call it packaging. Package yourself very well and that is what I have been doing consistently and when I took over the firm, to me it was just another transaction I just took over and I was just going to struggle and get it going. One of my mentors was like, “Charles, not a lot of people have the confidence or the courage to do what you have done so we need to celebrate” and then I granted an interview, and the interview went viral. I have consistently branded myself, so when the opportunity for top 25 came about, someone nominated me for it and there were over six hundred nominees across Canada in my category; the young lawyers’ category and the five people that had the highest votes in Canada would win it and I was one of the top five. How did that happen? Because I had put my name out there before that opportunity came about, I wasn’t some lawyer doing great work, but nobody knew about him, so when people saw the name, it was easy for them to vote. Same thing with my most recent award, being recognized in the best lawyers in Canada. No one has won that before; this was the very first of its kind and the best lawyers’ magazine is actually a big deal because they profile lawyers in US and Canada, and someone nominated me for it. The only people that were allowed to vote were lawyers, again there were over 300 nominees and I got it in Calgary because I had put my name out there. It’s one thing to be hardworking, to do all the right things but if people don’t know what you are doing and how you are making a difference and what you are bringing to the table you don’t get the recognition that comes from that.
DNL L&S: If you are to take one step back, what was that turning point for you to become a successful lawyer in Canada.
Charles: In my case, I would say it is an accumulation of so many things. When I took over the firm, I believe that was that leap of faith that I gambled with that is paying off. Sometimes they say what is holding you from success is that leap of faith and that leap of faith happens outside of your comfort zone. You cannot stick to what is comfortable and be successful. Even before I came here, I was like, “maybe I should just stay back rather than traveling to Canada to start all over again”. A lot of people discouraged me saying you are going to start all over again. Everything that has brought me to where I am today have been uncomfortable at all stages.
DNL L&S You talked about the Africanness of the fusion of Osuji and Smith, how has this affected your clientele; positively or negatively
Charles: It was actually very deliberate to use the name Osuji alongside Smith. One, it gives the name a character not just another white and case or Charles and Smith. It is a name that is unique. When I wanted to use the name, I ran it by my circle. Some people were very negative about it. They were like “Charles you want goodwill in Smith to be affected by the badwill in Osuji.” I was like “you know what, I am going to prove a point”. At the end of the day, what I have noticed is, in this profession especially this part of the world, people gravitate towards professionals that can help them, and once they find someone that can help them go through their situation, they don’t care anymore about so many variables like your accent, your last name, where you come from, etc. If you go to our google page it is all positive reviews for the most part, and the awards, including being rated top three employment, civil litigation, estate planning, business and divorce lawyers in Calgary attests to this. In fact, adding the name Osuji has become a blessing to the brand and one of the best decisions I have ever made. what we are doing is changing the narratives out there not just about the name but about the people behind the name. It is also an opportunity for me to tell the world that, “look, sometimes something good can come from Nazareth.“
DNL L&S: And how has that reflected on the people you employ, are they also a fusion of races?
Charles: I am very deliberate in terms of diversity. A lot of organizations out there just talk the talk in terms of diversity, they don’t want to walk the talk. I have been intentional about the people that I hire. If you look at the firm, you see all kinds of faces there; Nigerians, Indians, Koreans, Chinese, Spanish, Canadians, etc. it’s just a lot of different faces. someone called it a small United Nations.
DNL L&S: You spoke earlier about keeping the name ‘Smith’ for some time to honour Mr. Smith’s legacy, how long will this be and what is the outlook with regards to bringing in other partners?
Charles: Right now, I am looking into tripling the space of the practice. I own the building where we practice from, but I am looking at building a bigger structure behind the office may be next year. That would definitely create may be 20 more office spaces for more people and that would take me to the question of getting more partners. It is a different kind of beast, and I haven’t really thought about it because finding a good partner is very important. It is a conversation that has to be very intentional and because what I have built is very delicate, I can’t have someone with a different value system come in and turn it upside down. It is something that is at the back of my mind in terms of scaling and expansion, so I have to be very intentional about how I make that decision.
DNL L&S: Would the expansion include having Osuji & Smith set up in Nigeria?
Charles: Absolutely. Expanding into Nigeria would revolve around specific practice areas that we can manage from here. immigration is something that we can manage from here because you are dealing with immigration laws. I have had a conversation with one of my classmates about that. Since I have only run this firm for about three years, there is just so many years ahead of me. once I consolidate here, I can expand to other cities or countries including Nigeria.
DNL L&S: Speaking of Nigeria, what areas do you consider requires improvement in both legal education and legal practice in Nigeria or do you think we are fine?
Charles: No, we are not fine, we are far from fine. First, my point of reference may be outdated because I was called in 2010, I am sure a lot of things must have changed, or new things put in place. Back when I did my youth service, I just wanted to serve somewhere in the east so that I could travel home do the camping and come back but I got stuck in Abakaliki where I did my youth service. I was sent to a local government for my youth service. I would go there in the morning, and I would play scrabble with the security man until like noon and I would go home. I did this for a week, and I was like “what the heck am I doing?”, so I had to immediately search for a law firm in the city where I could gain some experience.
When I started with the law firm, my principal would bundle all of us in his small car and take us to the court in the morning and we would wait until 1 o’clock in the afternoon or so just for him to make an adjournment. After the adjournment he would bundle us back again to the chambers, sometimes there won’t be light and nobody knew anything about Internet connectivity there. One of the older lawyers used to type with only one of his fingers. So, when I came here it was a completely different ball game. A lot of improvement has to be made in terms of process. I remember in court back home the judge had to handwrite everything you say, and I understand they still do that. That is terrible, medieval, and absolutely ridiculous. Here, I could adjourn a matter in 10 seconds and I don’t even need to do it, as I could have my assistant go to the court’s website, put the action number, the day of the hearing, the new date, confirm that we have consent of the other counsel punch it in and within 30 seconds you are getting a response from the court confirming the adjournment. In terms of court appearances, nobody writes anything down unless the judge wants to. You have recorders in the courtroom, recording and transcribing everything that is said. All you need to do is go back to your office, put in a request for the transcript and the request is sent to you in a few days at a cost. That way, the judge is not distracted by having to handwrite everything the lawyer is saying. So, a lot of investment has to be made to the process
DNL L&S: What would be your advice to lawyers and law students in Nigeria who are desirous of getting licensed in Canada, particularly as it relates to practice area to consider?
Charles: First of all, I would like to mention that it is so easy to get distracted by the glory and loosing focus of the story behind the glory. Charles Osuji’s dream didn’t come about overnight. When I came here, I did all kinds of survival jobs, anything you can think of; factory jobs, warehouse and all that. There was a time I worked in a recycling place, these garbage trucks would pick up garbage every week and we would go there to sort them. Sometimes you see a dead cat, you see pampers and stuffs like that. It was horrible but I did that. I worked in fast food restaurants, all kind of work. There was a time I was working three shifts per day, meaning that I got to sleep like two times in a week. I would work back-to-back before I could catch some sleep. I could go on and on. There was a time I went for an interview after having worked back-to-back with no sleep, and I slept right in front of the interviewer, I passed out. Of course, I failed the interview. There was a time I slept off on a train, the train got to the end of the city and came back to the other end and went back again until someone woke me up having been convinced that I was not just having a train ride. There is this spot near a store in downtown that I used to drag with a homeless man. Whoever got there first would use that spot to sleep like 30 minutes. So sometimes I got there first and sleep for 30 minutes before I catch my bus to the next job. I did all of that while writing my NCA exams, but all those experiences became a blessing in disguise. I built capacity and there is nothing you can throw at me right now that I have not seen before. And with those experiences I am able to appreciate the blessings that I enjoy now, because it is one thing to be blessed and another thing to appreciate the blessing and privileges. I am also sensitive to the people coming after me, understanding their pain point and what they are going
So, anyone looking to come here must be ready to overcome these challenges. They must be ready to stoop low to conquer. You are coming to Canada, google the names of lawyers in Canada, you are going to be hearing glorious stories, but you are not going to hear the backstories. The things that happen behind the scenes but those are the things that build one and their character I remember Mr. Smith asked me some day; “Charles where do you get this energy from?” And I was like, “what energy?” I was just working seven days a week, what is the big deal. So, you must be ready to do survival jobs, be ready to do whatever it takes to survive and get ahead because, it is not going to be easy at the beginning. Secondly in Nigeria you have all the comfort from friends, colleagues and all that, you are going to be leaving all that behind and assuming a very new persona and identity and building your professional network from ground up. A bunch of people that came here recently didn’t have anyone, they had to start from the cab driver that picked them up from the airport to build relationships. Sometimes, it is going to be frustrating because you are going to be wondering whether you made the right decision in the first place to come here but when you hear stories like mine, you know that it is all about what you put in. what you put in is what you are going to get. If you want to smile and be happy and dance during harvest, then you better work hard during the planting season.
You also need to do a little bit of self-education about this place before you come. Before you come here, make sure that you have looked up some of the basic information about coming here, such as surviving, what schools to attend, the licensing process, etc
Then mentorship, this is something that we take for granted back home. The idea of mentorship isn’t as crystalized in Nigeria as it is here. Here, mentorship is everything. If nobody is vouching for you behind your back, you cannot get ahead. So, mentorship is important. One of the things that I did was to join a mentoring organization as a mentee, and they connected me with a mentor, through him, I met a lot of people. Just with his name doors were being opened. Coffee meetings were granted just because I said this person is my mentor and this person referred me to you. And it is not just connecting with someone, it is also about continuing and maintaining the relationships as long as possible. Those are the tips I can share.
In terms of practice area, when you are coming in you just have to be open and flexible. Don’t narrow your mind to any specific practice area. For instance, my major practice areas include employment, family, litigation, and business. I ignored these practice areas back in the University. But when I came here, I kept an open mind and guess what, the areas that I thought that didn’t mean anything to my future are the areas that I enjoy now and those are the areas that I find myself successful in.
DNL L&S: Where do you consider Osuji & Smith to be in the next 5 years?
Charles: Physical expansion is top on my list because we have outgrown the space where we are right now. Right now, I have 15 people that work for me. In the next five years it is definitely going to be doubled and the more space I have, the more people I can help. It is all about how many people I am able to help with my story with the privileged position I am in. To me that will be the assessment of my success down the road. How many people got ahead because of me and how many people had the journey easy because of my assistance. That is the motivation for expanding. I could easily remain where I am right now, but I can only help so many people based on capacity but if I could double or triple the space then I have the opportunity to help more people which is really my passion at this point.
DNL L&S: Any tips for expanding clientele to lawyers back home seeing how well you are doing in that regard with Osuji and Smith?
Charles: since I have been away for a while, it’s difficult for me to advise on how to scale in Nigeria. Moreover, Nigeria has very unconventional factors that you have to be conscious of in scaling. Here, I can tell you, to do this, do that and you get to this place. There is this degree of predictability in the market here. But back in Nigeria, there are so many good lawyers with good intentions but since they are not doing certain things, they can’t move any further, that is why my advice might not be the best. But then, It is exactly everything I have been saying in terms of mentorship, finding someone in your practice area that is very advanced in terms of experience, not just with respect to the law but the business side of it which is very important. In fact, I consider myself a businessman before considering myself a lawyer.
DNL L&S: You have talked much about branding as one of the major means to success, how were you branding yourself before the awards began to trickle in?
Charles: I believe in being a local champion first before a national champion and that is very important and I would tell you why. When I came here, I started with my immediate community, that was where my branding was. I became the Secretary of the Igbo Association of Calgary. That position gave me access to so many people’s homes because we did visitation to homes every weekend; someone put to bed, someone got married, someone got bereaved and so on, that got me into people’s homes. I also got involved with CRIEC Calgary Regional Immigrant Employment Council as a mentee. I started connecting with internationally trained lawyers because that was a good place to meet them. The connections grew organically from there until I became nationally recognized.
DNL L&S: Aside law, what other things interest you?
Charles: I play soccer twice a week. Church is also huge for me. I am part of the choir, I actually host choir practice here in my home once a month. I am all over the place in terms of events. I get involved in my community and I get involved when I am invited for a function, it helps with distraction. There isn’t really much you can do when you are running a very busy practice. These are the things I can accommodate in the meantime.
DNL L&S: How do you relax?
That is if I relax? It is challenging because we are selling intangible services. You could be in the soccer pitch, church, sleeping and you are thinking about a client’s file. You can’t dissociate yourself from the work. On a given day I receive over five hundred emails because I am managing all the files the lawyers are working on because my name is out there. 99 percent of these clients contact the firm because of me so it’s had to relax in the traditional sense of it but there are still distractions here and there. People talk about work life balance, to me that is an objective that you achieve down the road, it is not something you get while you are building a practice. Koby Bryant, God rest his soul would say, “rest at the end not at the middle.” Hopefully someday the lawyers in my firm would be able to work more independently. Right now, we learn how to dance in the rain.