There is a way the divine hand guides the affairs of men. There are times that one’s mind is set to achieve a particular target only for fate to interfere and guide one to the agenda of the Almighty. This is particularly true of George Etomi , one of Nigeria’s most accomplished corporate lawyers.
After his Master’s degree from London School of Economics, he came back to Nigeria, sought and got an appointment to teach at the Faculty of Law, University of Lagos. However, fate decided otherwise. The erudite told the story better: “There was an element of chance or luck, influence and perhaps fate. Generally, I took an interest in commercial law subjects at the undergraduate level; my favorite subjects were Company Law, Law of Contracts, Equity and Trust and Insurance Law.
“Then I went for a Master’s degree at the London School of Economics where we were given six weeks to choose our areas of interest from several courses. I initially chose Company Law, Insurance, Civil Litigation and a fourth subject. We were allowed six weeks – an experimental period – and we submitted the four subjects at the end of that period. I attended classes in all the four subjects but included International Economic Law and the Law of Business Taxation. At the end of the experimental period, I narrowed down my choice to Company Law, Insurance Law, International Economic Law and Law of Business Taxation; all squarely commercial law subjects.
“My primary interest was to teach and I got appointed to the Faculty of Law of the University of Lagos but barely stayed there before I met [Udo] Udoma (now Senator and one of my closest friends) who had been teaching there for about three months before I began. He basically discouraged me from teaching and gave me the address of Chris Ogunbanjo and Co.”
This was the beginning of what has become one of the most robust corporate practices in Nigeria today. Etomi has never stopped thanking God for taking him to the chambers of Chief Chris Ogunbanjo, whose practice was mainly corporate at a time when most lawyers in the country engaged in advocacy.
He said: Chris Ogunbanjo at the time, without a shadow of doubt, had the most vibrant Commercial Law practice in Nigeria. The opportunity to work directly with such a great man largely influenced my career because those of us under him were exposed to the best and most esoteric areas of Commercial Law practice. So when I left to found George Etomi & Partners (GE&P) in 1984, there was little surprise that I got stuck with commercial law.”
Yet the beginning was not a bed of roses. “When I started practice in 1984, Nigeria was going through a recession; these recessions have a cycle, they come and go. At that time I did question the wisdom of leaving a secure employment to go into the field. It was not easy at first, but I had a determination not to fall below the standard I had been used to.
“Therefore, locating my office in Ikoyi as I did was part of that determination. The rent did not come cheap; I first started by sharing a building with a dental office. I did a lot of running around because I quickly discovered that I had converted from being paid to actually paying other people. I had to go lobby for work, see it done to the highest professional standard, and get paid for it. In addition, I had to administer the office. So the challenges were enormous; even NEPA did not make it easy; because of the poor power situation I had to get a generator which I had not originally budgeted for.”
But how did he manage to survive the challenges of a beginner? He explained that Commercial Law practice is tied to the fortunes of the economy; when it booms, business booms. When there is a recession, it affects the same way. “One thing I learnt quickly in practice is that law is life and it encompasses every area of human endeavour, so we find that even in difficult times e.g. recession, there is plenty of room for insolvency practice. So it is important for lawyers to keep reinventing themselves to stay in business,” he explained.
Today, Etomi’s resilience has paid off. What started as a solo practice now has three branches including Port Harcourt and Abuja, with nearly 30 lawyers spread across the practice. Nigeria as a country is his professional association, and young lawyers are the beneficiaries. His practice is beneficial to the country because he is one of the lawyers that fashioned The Telecommunications Act, the law that democratized communications in Nigeria. The fact that Nigerians today can use the telephone, regardless of status, is the handiwork of people like Etomi.
He explained how this came about: “The Telecoms Act was a product of a private member’s bill. Hon. Nduka Irabor, who used to be the Chairman of the House committee on Telecommunication and whose passion for creating an enabling legal and regulatory framework for that industry is most commendable, actually worked with our firm to realize that Bill. We were so impressed by his patriotism that the firm [GE&Pj actually worked pro bono to see that that Bill defeated the Executive Bill, which sought to leave too much power in the hand of the Minister. Paul Usoro and Co. worked with the Senate Committee and at some point, we harmonized the positions of the House and the Senate to produce what even the most critical of Industry watchers today agree is the best thing to happen to the Telecoms Industry.”
The Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) in 2003 under the leadership of Chief Wole Olanipekun SAN, decided to introduce sections in the body in line with the International Bar Association practice and also to generate lawyers’ interest in the activities of the association. Three sections were therefore created; there are the sections on Business Law (SBL), sections of Public Interest and Development Law, and sections of legal practices (SPL) Etomi was chosen as the pioneer chairman of the SBL, unarguably the most vibrant section in the NBA. With the SBL, Etomi placed the NBA on the world map, with members attending conferences all over the world; in the same manner, eminent legal practitioners come to Nigeria to attend the SBL conference every year. This has positively affected not only legal practice; it has also added value to business practice in Nigeria.
On his activities at the Bar, Etomi said: “When I got involved in the Bar activities and was made chairman of the Dinner Committee of the Lagos Bar about years ago, I saw that with the right sort of leadership at the bar, you could get lawyers to be more involved in determining their destiny. One way to achieve this is to continuously update themselves about developments in the profession;
“My exposure to the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) at that time also opened my eyes to the failure of the NBA at that time, to give complete cover to all facets of its members. For example those of us in the Corporate Law world were treated like outsiders to the NBA and I felt the NBA was not getting the complete benefit of its members. Most of this was due to the origin of the NBA, which was an activist group fighting for independence. But times have changed now and it simply needed to broaden its umbrella to accommodate non-litigation lawyers.
“The NBA is an organisation that is larger than life; it cuts across all the other professions. We thought the way it could show its full face was to harness the entire spectrum of lawyers because it was slowly losing this batch of non-litigation practitioners.”Etomi is full of advice to young lawyers to always update themselves. “A lawyer who wants to make it or who wants to open his own law firm must get the rudiments of business, which you don’t get in law school. I attended the Lagos Business School executive course and it has proved very helpful in shaping my law practice. Globalization is a buzzword and the incidents that affected law practice in our times, are different from what happens now. It presents new threats and opportunities. Some respond to these threats by becoming bigger and some are specializing. But whatever path you choose, there is no substitute for hard work.”
On his advice on maintaining the success in the communications industry, he said: “I believe that for the Telecoms Industry, the focus should be on the Regulator and the Minister should always be in charge of policy. It is a frightening proposition for the Minister to interfere with how the Telecoms Industry works outside of policy. Today, the Telecoms Sector is the only public sector that is really working because it is the only truly deregulated sector. It is therefore not surprising that it is the one industry that continuously attracts genuine foreign investment into the economy. This is due to the legal and regulatory framework.”
Till date Etomi has not lost his passion for teaching. He finds time to teach. He also does not compromise his position as a family man. How does he cope with all these? He replied: “It’s called juggling. Whatever I do, I try to maintain a balance between the home front and my professional obligation. I thank God for a most supportive wife and family. She is also a lawyer but we have an unspoken agreement not to take work home so we can focus on each other and the family. And because I also travel a lot, we tend to treasure whatever time we have with each other when I am around.
“Then I teach at the Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies. I am one of the resource persons there and I enjoy doing this. I am also involved in a lot of other professional obligations, so I am constantly juggling. On a personal level, I do a lot of philanthropic work. I have a foundation which I run with my twin brother, Dr. Mike Etomi. It is our way of giving back. The foundation is about alleviating the poverty of the Niger Delta people, especially those caught in the oil saga. The foundation has a branch in the United States of America and we are working with many good people.
“I do not have too many direct business concerns, though people do not believe me when I say this. It is true, though. However, I do have investments here and there. I am a Vicar’s Warden so that means I am deeply involved with the church. I was also the People’s Warden. I really treasure this religious aspect of my life because it completes my balancing act. As you grow older it is important to know where your priorities lie and to get closer to your Maker.”