Hello there. We trust you are making the best use of the lockdown and staying safe, because we are!
On the Lawyer of the Week series, we feature Stephen Arubike, a lawyer at Nigeria’s leading law firm, G. Elias & Co. He took us through his journey into the legal profession while giving practical advice to young lawyers on issues ranging from choosing an area of specialization to the kind of firm to work in.
Read the full interview below
Can we meet you?
My name is Stephen Chima Arubike. I am a lawyer with one of Nigeria’s leading business law firms, G. Elias & Co. I have been in law practice for roughly 13 years (including my one year National Youth Service). I had my secondary education in both Nigeria and Ghana, finishing at Mars Business Secondary School Accra, Ghana in 1996. My law degree was at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. I graduated with Upper Second Class Honours in 2005. I finished with a First Class Honours at the Nigerian Law School in 2007. As one of the best candidates at the Bar Final examination in my set, I received the T.O.S. Benson’s Prize for Best Overall Performance (2nd Prize). Currently, my practice is focused mainly on commercial litigation and tax.
What informed your decision to study law?
My decision to study law was somewhat not very obvious. In Ghana, I was in the midst of students studying business-related subjects to prepare them for a professional career in finance, accountancy, and management. When I joined the school, I selected subjects from the liberal arts that the school was able to offer at that time. These subjects include Economics, History, and Geography. They shaped and broadened my thoughts a great deal. From the questions and interactions during class sessions, my teacher encouraged me to study law or philosophy. When I returned to Nigeria to prepare for the UME (the University Matriculation Examination as it was then called), I had already made up my mind to study law. The idea of studying law was not welcomed by my family members, although they did not say so directly. They preferred that I study medicine. I continued with my pursuit of law as I had no background in the sciences to prepare me to study medicine. Also, having been convinced about my choice of law, I never wanted anybody to make this lifetime decision of my future career for me.
What influenced your choice of an area of specialization and at what stage of your career did you make the decision? What advice do you have for law students and young wigs in this regard?
My choice of specialization was mostly influenced by my firm’s culture of exposing new wigs to as many areas of law as possible within the first two years of practice. This exposed me to different areas of law. Personally, I have never wished to be a narrow specialist. I am a generalist in nature. As such, litigation is a natural fit for me. Commercial litigation gives me the opportunity to delve into virtually every area of law. For instance, if you are handling a dispute on securities law violation, you must study about securities law thoroughly to be able to put up effective legal representation for the client. The same applies where you are handling disputes relating to oil and gas, real estate and constructions, telecoms, or fintech. The same also applies in tax advisory where you will need to understand the peculiarity of a transaction before advising on the tax effect of the same or suggesting an alternative tax-efficient structure. In a nutshell, I chose to specialize in the areas that will give me room (or rather compel me) to know about other areas of law. While many may disagree with me, I commend my firm’s culture where lawyers in their first two years are not meant to specialize until later in their career. I will advise law students and young wigs not to rush and specialize immediately after their call to the Bar. Take some time to understand the legal services industry first. The merit in that approach is that you will appreciate legal practice from a broad perspective and, perhaps, at the time you are to specialize, you will have enough information at your disposal to make a better choice about the area of specialization.
What challenging moments did you have as a young legal practitioner? How were you able to overcome them?
The most challenging moment as a young legal practitioner is the realization that I am to be engaged in a job that could keep me sitting down all day. As an energetic young lawyer, I found it challenging to adapt to this. To overcome that, I developed a practice of multitasking and engaging in other non-legal activities to ease off my boredom. I exercise regularly and intermittently in the course of my work. I create time to stroll and even engage colleagues in order to ease off the tension of long work. Additionally, as I become more experienced and specialize, I become more involved in the aspect of practice that I enjoy most. With this comes the flow.
You had a brief stint with Allen & Overy during the course of your career. What notable gains did the experience offer?
I was seconded to Allen and Overy between July 2018 and October 2018. I worked with the firm’s Disputes and Tax Teams at the Johannesburg office, South Africa. Before embarking on the secondment, I was already reasonably experienced. That notwithstanding, the brief period there was revealing. For instance, I expected to see a significant and well-stocked library, but there was none. The library was entirely virtual. Most researches are conducted online. I also noticed that they take business development (BD) seriously, and there is a department for it headed by a Manager. In fact, BD forms part of every lawyer’s appraisal. I also made beneficial professional connections, and I am currently a member of the Allen & Overy Alumni network.
What do you consider most important for a new wig choosing a law firm to practice with?
First things first. A new wig needs to find out whether the legal practice is really for him. If not, he needs to find a job that suits him. Studying law and practicing law are entirely different things. There is absolutely nothing wrong with studying law and doing something else. Law degree and training opens doors for varieties of opportunities. Legal practice is one of them. Secondly, find out whether the culture of the firm fits into your worldview. Every firm has its core values. Some may align with yours, and others may not. Third, as much as possible, find out whether the people that work there are the kind of people you will enjoy working with. Finally, apart from the salary, find out whether there are opportunities in the firm to grow and learn. There is no perfect law firm. If you make some inquires, you will get some revealing insight about the law firms that offer you a job. But you must be ready to make a trade-off as you cannot have everything.
You are currently a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Taxation and a Member of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators. Given your experience, what are the dividends attached to membership of professional bodies and how can individuals who may not have the financial might these organizations require benefit from them?
There are dividends attached to membership of professional bodies. Of course, being a member of professional bodies helps in knowledge and information sharing. You will also have the opportunity of networking with professional colleagues and meeting potential clients. This is because you have in-house counsel and industry experts in such professional associations. Some of these benefits of professional membership are not exclusive to members. For instance, the Mandatory Professional Training of the Chartered Institute of Taxation of Nigeria (“CITN”) is open to members and non-members. On funding, I am aware that some of these professional bodies offer discounts and scholarship opportunities to young lawyers. The NBA Lagos Branch recently announced some waivers for members who want to join the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators. In all, as it is said, knowledge is power, and so there is no price that can be said to be too much for knowledge. Benjamin Franklin said that “[A]n investment in knowledge pays the best interest.”
In your opinion, what will be the effect of Covid-19 on company taxes in light of the Finance Act 2019?
The effect of Covid-19 on company taxes will not be on the substantive tax law itself. Of course, the Finance Act, 2019 (with the sweeping changes it introduced in the tax landscape), is just roughly 3 months old. Covid-19 will mostly affect tax compliance. There will be cases of late filing of tax returns with the resulting penalties. To avoid that, companies are encouraged to file their tax returns through e-mail and online portal. The Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) has now issued directives extending the time for filing Value Added Tax (VAT) and withholding tax (WHT) from the 21st day to the last working day of the month following the month of deduction. Also, the FIRS has extended the due date of filing for Companies Income Tax (CIT) by 30 days. This is a welcome development. Objections to a tax assessment that were not filed before the lockdown caused by Covid-19 could be presented through the e-filing platform. Thankfully, the Finance Act 2019, now statutorily endorsed the filing of an objection to an assessment through e-mails or online portals.
Any final words for Nigerians and legal professionals at this time?
Nigerians and legal professionals are going through a period of uncertainty brought by the COVID-19 pandemic. We need to be hopeful and resilient in our fight to overcome the epidemic and its effects. Perhaps, this may be an opportunity for us to change the way we do things by embracing the new “virtual reality” of technology. Our profession is also going through its trying time. The legal profession in Nigeria is gradually losing its place as a noble and hallowed profession. Given the recent happenings in our country, disobedience of court orders and disregard for the rule of law, the judiciary and indeed the Bar has been ridiculed in a way as never before, at least, in the history of our country. I encourage lawyers and our judiciary to rise to the occasion and defend the profession and the rule of law against external interference.
Thank you for your time.
Thank you too.