I remember vividly my first meeting with Paul Usoro, SAN (PU). It was the final stage of a recruitment process that spanned about seven weeks. The only significant law practice experience I had prior to that encounter was the one I had at the Anambra State Ministry of Justice and a very brief stint at another good firm on Lagos Island.
In that meeting, PU could see that I felt timid from the moment I entered the room. After momentarily looking into my eyes, he said, ‘Professor Kuti, you are welcome to PUC’. Honestly, as though a rain of infrequent relief was falling on me in that room, I felt confident sitting in front of him. I really believed at that time that he deliberately called me ‘Professor’ just for me to gain some confidence. From that very day till now, PU still refers to me as Professor.
There are four things I picked from the period I spent working with PU. First, PU believes in the competence of the lawyers who work with him. He has complete trust in their abilities to get results. There is no case/brief too big for any particular Associate in the firm. This for me was very commendable as it helped those of us who were very junior in the firm to grow efficiently, even through challenging assignments. PU believes that an Associate can handle any case that a SAN can handle if the former properly prepares and applies himself. According to him “It is not about the SAN title, it is about the intellect”.
I remember on one occasion when we went to the Court of Appeal in Lagos for the Hearing of three related appeals. One of the other parties had served us with a List of Additional Authorities which, inexplicably, we had neglected to bring to PU’s attention. It was in the courtroom that PU heard of it for the first time and he turned to look in our direction, asking for the additional list and the cases. We gave them to him and on the spot he distinguished the cases from the issues in the three appeals. Unbelievably, PU did not shout at us after the proceedings. He said, “You saw what happened in court today?” “What could you have done better”? That is PU’s way of encouraging younger lawyers to learn to pay attention to everything they are responsible for. Most likely, some other principals would have shouted down the roofs, issued queries or even dismissal letters for such an error.
Second, PU creates a level playing ground for young lawyers to work and grow at their own pace. I must mention that in less than one year I was promoted beyond the entry level, simply because the firm believed in my abilities and dedication, which I did not even know were good enough.
Third PU provided opportunities for associates in the firm to bill clients and pursue the fees. I have heard reports of firms where Associates had no ideas how much clients are billed for the cases they handle. That is not the case at PUC. PU left it to the discretion of every team in the firm how much to bill clients for every brief received, except in some exceptional high profile cases. As a young lawyer, I found the billing process discussions really helpful because it gave me insight into how to bill justifiably if I were to run my own firm. I have heard a number of senior lawyers mention the fact that they never knew how to bill clients until their practice was going bankrupt, all simply because the Principals they had understudied never allowed them to know what they charged for briefs received. A related issue is the fact that PU designed the system at PUC in such a way that as Associates, we knew when clients paid and exactly how much was paid regardless of which team was handling the clients’ briefs. This gave us insight into how much revenue the firm was generating as well as how much we could expect as returns for our efforts.
Fourth, PU encourages you to go after your dreams. When I was about to leave Nigeria for postgraduate studies, I applied for study leave, though I knew I was not qualified therefor according to the terms of my employment as I had not worked up to two years at PUC. On my final day at the office, I went to see PU for the first time after I made the application (he had not been available in Lagos for some weeks) and the first thing he said was, ‘Prof, you are going to school without taking me along’? I giggled, obviously not knowing what to say. He told me not to worry as he had seen my application for study leave and approved it. That, for me, was an undoubted commitment by PU to seeing to it that I could pursue the dreams I always had. I had told him, at my first meeting with him, that I was keen on postgraduate studies. As a matter of fact, my salary for that month was paid after I had left the shores of Nigeria (I left the office formally in the middle of that month). Besides, I remember he also specifically told me on my last day at the office that he would support me in my postgraduate journey, and he was true to that promise.
There is no doubt that PU really improves the competence and efficiency of the younger lawyers connected to him. There are many things I can easily do now that I clearly trace to the training I received from PU. I remember when I joined the faculty here as Graduate Lecturing Assistant, many of the Professors in the faculty noticed something different about my approach to work as well as my relationship with the students. A number of them told me, specifically, that I must have picked up my work ethic from law practice. They saw my leadership capabilities and today, the faculty does not hesitate for once to commit even the most sacred of responsibilities to me. Such was the depth of training one gets from PU.
In my personal experience and walk with PU, I have no doubt that he provides platforms for younger lawyers to thrive and aspire to whatever heights they can imagine. I am persuaded that he will even do much more as the leader of the Nigerian Bar.
University of the Western Cape