In this edition of the Lawyer of the Month series, we had a chat with Theresa Chikwendu. She speaks to us about her stellar career trajectory, the distinction that exists in in-house practice, and of course, she leaves perpetual advice for young legal practitioners. Below is the full transcript of our interesting dialogue.

  1. Hello Theresa. Can we meet you?

My name is Theresa Chikwendu, and I am a Senior Manager in the Legal Department at MTN Nigeria Communications Plc (MTN). MTN Nigeria is one of Africa’s largest providers of communications services, connecting over 75 million people in communities across the country with each other and the world. 

I hold a Bachelor of Laws degree (LL.B.) from Delta State University, Nigeria and a Master of Laws degree (LL.M.) with a concentration in Corporate Law, Finance and Governance from Harvard Law School, USA.

Before joining MTN, I worked at Olaniwun Ajayi LP (OALP) and Punuka Attorneys & Solicitors. Sometime in 2017, while with (OALP), I was awarded a fellowship with the International Lawyers for Africa (ILFA) and seconded to the international law offices of Hogan Lovells LLP, London. I worked with the Mergers & Acquisitions team on a number of international transactions. Upon completion of the ILFA fellowship, I had another secondment opportunity with Infrastructure Credit Guarantee Company Limited (InfraCredit), a specialised Nigerian financial guarantor established to provide long-term local currency infrastructure financing support to local companies.

  1. Can we know what endeared you to legal practice?

My story is not your conventional one. Law was not exactly my first choice – I wanted to be a broadcaster like Eugenia Abu. Growing up, my parents never imposed a career on us (their children); they believed that we should choose our paths and stay committed to them. I choose the arts because I sought a path distinct from my family members – everyone was science-based. Contrary to the myth about most art students, I did not hate mathematics. I was actually quite decent at it.

The Law is a jealous lover

Sometime between Junior Secondary and Senior Secondary school, I stumbled on John Grisham’s works and became a huge fan and an ardent reader of his works. After that, I was convinced that law was my calling, and subsequently, it became my passion. I have never looked back since then.

  1. For many rookies, the lines between law firm practice and in-house practice are quite blurry. This comes especially as many corporate firms tend to outsource transactions to law firms. So, from your experience, what are the roles of in-house counsel?

Times have changed, and the role of an in-house counsel has greatly improved. In-house lawyers have metamorphosed into strategic business partners to the company as well as thought-leaders within the business. They advise on a myriad of legal, regulatory, and compliance issues.

Regarding my experience, it would depend on the transaction and whether we have the capacity to deal in-house. For example, during the MTN Nigeria 2019 Listing by Introduction, we had external counsel support on the transaction. However, in-house counsel played a crucial role, albeit behind the scene, in ensuring the successful closing of the transaction. Notwithstanding this, there have been several market-defining transactions that we have closed internally without external counsel support, like the partnerships with Tidal and Showmax, Ayoba App (Africa’s first super-app), the National Roaming Project with 9Mobile. In fact, the National Roaming Project was particularly important as it meant that 9Mobile subscribers would have access in some areas to MTN network services without an MTN SIM. A game-changer in the industry. Even the on-going Rural Telephony Project is completely in-house from the legal, regulatory and technical framework.

Generally, every company is different, and my advice to anyone seeking an in-house career is to ask the right questions – Is the Legal team empowered internally? If the Legal Department is empowered internally, that is awesome! It means that there is no limit to the extent of your growth, and I believe we have that in the Legal Department of MTN Nigeria.

  1. Generally, the theory of human and social capital is a major driving force behind getting a degree from an Ivy League or Oxbridge school. As a Harvard Law alumna, did institutional connections contribute to a career head-start?

Great question. Interestingly, I am asked that question a lot by people. There was no institutional head-start other than the fact that I had a dream. I remain grateful to my sister who asked what I had to lose by applying. I applied, I prayed, and the rest, as they say, is history.  

  1. A primary issue legal practitioners — men and women — tend to avoid discourses on is how well they balance family life with the profession. How does that work for you?

The reality is that the legal profession is tough, and if you want to be successful in the profession, you will have to make your peace with that. I recall one of my lecturers used to say –“the law is a jealous lover,” and this is true whether you are in-house, in private practice, or even a student. I have come to accept the fact that there is no balance; you just have to be deliberate about creating it.   

be intellectually curious, work hard, and let excellence be your watchword.

  1. Outside law, what other interests do you have?

I love reading and travelling. I do not believe in sitting still when I travel; I believe that you must explore and seek out adventures.

  1. Do you have any final remarks for law students and young lawyers who intend starting- out as promising practitioners?

Yes, I do. As a law student, work hard and get good grades. Although your grades do not determine whether you will have a successful legal career, having good grades will give you a foot in the door, particularly if you do not have a strong social network.

For the young lawyers, be confident in your skills and abilities – do not doubt yourself, bring your A-Game, and your full self to the table. Do great work. Just like in every corporate environment – doing good work would get you more work, and doing great work would get you even greater work.

In summary, be intellectually curious, work hard, and let excellence be your watchword. You may not always achieve what you want, but you would always be close because you set a high standard.

Thank you very much for your time.