The month of March has become synonymous with the celebration of women globally. To commemorate International Women’s Day, BusinessDay’s Onyinyechi Ukegbu speaks with Chinyere Okorocha, Partner, Intellectual Property practice and Head of the Health & Pharmaceuticals Sector at Jackson, Etti & Edu, and Chairperson of the Nigerian Bar Association, Women Forum on her career journey, the International Women’s Day theme, and the future of female lawyers in the sector.
Below are excerpts
What did you dream of being as a little girl?
A doctor! I played doctors and nurses – using the stethoscope, looking after everybody.
So how did you make the transition to law?
I met Mathematics in secondary school. It was not my favourite subject and I wasn’t very good at it. Although my father was a public prosecutor, my influence was really a professional course that would allow me to avoid maths.
I am certain the road has not been smooth. Was there any time you were underestimated or undervalued and how did you handle it?
I will be 32 years at the Bar this year and I have been in situations where I felt that I was not treated equitably. I have been in situations that made me cry. But the key thing that clarity does for you is that it fetters you, it is an anchor. When you have clarity about where you are going, it anchors you and realigns you with the vision you have for yourself. I think it is very important for us as female lawyers to ensure that when we are in those situations we do not react negatively. So, each time I did feel underappreciated and that my voice wasn’t being heard, I retraced my steps. I recognised that I don’t have all the answers, and opened myself to constructive criticism and other people’s ideas.
Another thing that has helped me is having mentors from afar. Early in my career, I didn’t have a mentor with whom I had a one-on-one relationship but there was a lady who I admired that worked in the same building and I wanted to be like her because she was pretty, smart and always gave brilliant ideas. If you can’t have a formal or one-on-one relationship then emulate them from afar. Study their lives and career and choose the things that align with your values and implement them. That was how I got to where I am now.
At present, you are a partner in Jackson, Etti & Edu, a thriving law firm in Nigeria. What are three characteristics that led you to where you are today?
Hard work – I come from very humble beginnings – my dad was a lawyer and my mom was the principal of a school, so I had parents who showed me that it was good to put in the work. Next, decide that you want to succeed. I find that most women enter the workforce without clarity on their goals. Early on, I knew I wanted to be very successful and worked with that in mind. Finally, build your network. This means striving to add value to everyone you come in contact with, such that if the opportunity arises for them to be of assistance to you, they would do it, gladly. And as a bonus, acknowledge that you can’t do it alone. You must have mentors. This means also that if you are married, you must partner with your husband to put the necessary structures in place to ensure you meet your professional goals.
Speaking of mentorship, if you could have dinner with three inspirational women, anywhere in the world, dead or alive, who would they be?
Firstly, Ibukun Awosika. I love her story, I love her message and I love what she has done with her career. The second woman would be Michelle Obama, I think that she is a really strong woman to reinvent herself and I find that very inspiring. The third is Oprah Winfrey. She is one of the richest women in the world and she has got her finger into so many pies. I admire Oprah because she is a woman of many parts, and many interests and she has made a success of them all. I would love to sit with her and ask how she did it.
I know you have a mentorship program for young female lawyers. What is the most important thing you want to share with them?
I am very passionate about female professionals recognising that the power to grow is in their hands. I am tired of the old rhetoric that leans towards being victimised and being treated badly. The power is in our hands and I realise that a lot of young female professionals do not have this information. There is a need to share my story and the things I have learnt in my 32-year career with other women and in particular female lawyers. This led me to establish Heels and Ladders, a career mentorship program. I designed five modules that teach the substance of what should make female lawyers successful professionals. The trainings I give are excellent and I have gone a step further to also take courses on coach mentorship just to hone my skills in coaching. I am passionate about helping women who want to rise up the ladder and it is so gratifying to hear the success stories of those who have taken part in the program.
If the ultimate goal of the senior partner in not [assigning a task to a female lawyer] is because she is a woman, then it is not the right argument. The question is “is she the best person for the job?” If so, give her the resources to enable her to succeed.
What do you think are the greatest challenges and opportunities for the next generation of female lawyers?
I think the greatest challenge is perhaps marrying the conservative nature of law with the fast-changing world and the introduction of technology. For years the law school curriculum has not changed even with the changing face of the legal profession. Nothing about legal technology, nothing about blockchain, nothing about the new areas of law and nothing about the soft skills that one needs to succeed as a lawyer- sales, marketing, etc. So, this is the real challenge that I see.
I would say technology has brought a lot of opportunities. The world truly is a global village and if you harness the energy of the internet properly in your career, the sky is your limit. I am a strong advocate of personal branding, one that is separate from the organisation’s. Women should take their knowledge, technical ability, experiences, and values and use them to create an authentic persona around their personality. This is one of the things that has given me an upliftment in my career. Just ensure that such a personal brand is not at variance with the brand of your organisation.
Read also: Women In Technology: Promoting gender equality in the digital age
It is very difficult for women in the workplace to talk about harassment without seeming like they are tattlers or fussers. Do you have any recommendations on how they can handle this?
The intimidation and silence women have had to go through, and the fear of being discriminated against is real. The usual response to such allegations is that she is lying or she is just trying to destroy my reputation, and by the time you are harassed into being a liar, you don’t just want the stigma around you. It is important to start accumulating evidence early on in such situations, such that it is not just hearsay from you. Secondly, try not to put yourself in situations where it is even an issue. Be smart and protect yourself. Do your best to network with clients and coworkers in a way that does not put you in such situations. Also, most workplaces have procedures for tackling sexual harassment accusations. Speak to HR confidentially. Explain that you are not logging a formal complaint but you just want it on record, so that at the end of the day if needed, there is a track record of evidence for such inappropriate behaviour.
Culturally, men have been raised to be in a protective capacity. In the workplace this plays out in various ways, for instance, they could refuse to assign female lawyers to “dangerous” tasks, unintentionally slowing down the advancement of the woman’s career. How can these men be better allies?
I think your question is in two folds and one is the importance of having male allies or cheerleaders and the other is the protective nature of the man in terms of your job whether it is a plus or minus for female professionals. Having male allies is absolutely important. You cannot advance as a woman if you do not have male cheerleaders in your corner. I call them advocates. I have male advocates who are in my corner, and who speak for me when I am not there, even within my organisations. It is important for female professionals to cultivate those relationships early because whether we agree or not, the men in the legal space have the upper hand.
Regarding part two of your question, I think that the question cannot be answered without the goal in mind. If the ultimate goal of the senior partner in not sending a female lawyer to another jurisdiction is because she is a woman, then it is not the right argument. The question is “is she the right or best person for the job?” Then give her the resources to enable her to succeed. I have travelled to over 30 countries of the world, representing my firm and if there was ever a need for me to have extra resources whatever the cost because I was going into a particularly unknown area, the firm provided it for me. This is what it should be.
I notice that Jackson Etti & Edu has a near-even spread of male-to-female partners. Was this intentional? If so, why was this important to the future of the firm?
As a founding member of my law firm Jackson, Etti & Edu, which is a full-service law firm with a sector focus, I am proud to say that there is an enabling environment that allows me to express myself and grow. The firm supports women striving for a work-life balance, whilst also rising meritoriously up the career ladder, without discrimination. I am grateful to be part of such a wonderful group of professionals.
You are currently the Chairperson of the NBA Women Forum and the Forum has a conference coming up this month. Could you tell us about that?
We tag the conference as our Annual General Conference and International Women’s Day event and this year it is happening in Abuja, on the 30th and 31st of March. The theme is around the theme of the IWD hashtag “Embrace Equity”. It is tech-based in terms of innovation for women- “Tech Her In – Innovating for Gender Equity”. The Covid-19 pandemic changed a whole lot of things and human beings are so resilient and innovative. Technology has made us adaptable.
The NBA Women Forum is an arm of the NBA constitutionally set up to cater for the interest of the Nigerian female lawyer. I am grateful to the NBA leadership for fulfilling that part of the NBA Constitution. The NBA Women Forum operates through its executive council and committees and has a national spread with branch coordinators in the 125 branches of the NBA and state leads in the different states. We provide training, and mentorship on work-life balance, etiquette and empowerment. We are also hoping that we have a female NBA president. We believe that if we empower ourselves, we can achieve this soon.
What excites you most about the future?
Because I am a Christian and I know the thoughts the Lord has for me. I am excited about the unknown; the things I am yet to achieve. I am excited to design the future in whatever way I desire.
I always say that I won’t mind being an ambassador of Nigeria. To me, it is very important to show our good parts, especially given the negative narrative in international media. I agree that there are many things that need work. But there is a lot of good, too. So I would love to be in a position where I can show that we are rich in culture and value, we are intelligent, hardworking, fun-loving people and we are deep thinkers. Many Fortune 500 companies, especially tech, have lots of persons of Nigerian descent in key positions of innovation and tech advancement in their organisations. I don’t know when or where but it is something I have on my mind.
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