Legal Analysts have said that by the year 2036, One hundred and fourteen thousand (114,000) legal services/jobs for lawyers would be automated. As data and technology continues to drive infrastructural developments across sectors, many legal practitioners wonder about the impact of these developments on legal businesses.
In this edition, LegalBusiness Associate, ONYINYE UKEGBU sits with the General Counsel of MainOne, ABAYOMI ADEBANJO to discuss, the impact of technology on the legal industry, legal tech innovation, strong regulations on data residency, the Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA), the Finance Act 2020, as well as his new role as MainOne’s General Counsel.
What is a typical workday as MainOne’s General Counsel?
I cover four main areas: commercial, which encompasses sales, contracts, and negotiations; regulatory; company secretarial, where I have oversight functions; and general corporate by which I mean structured corporate work that is not necessarily related to our general day to day commercial contracting process, for instance, capital raising,, project financing, mergers & acquisitions etc. We have footprints across West African particularly, Cote d’ Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria and Senegal with our submarine cable infrastructure terminating in Sexial, Portugal. We have branching units we have not developed heading to Tenerife, and Morocco. So, my day typically is overseeing those four core activities across the various jurisdictions.
Yes, it’s quite busy. MainOne is a 10-year old company and we position ourselves as a leading communications service provider across WA. At present, we will continue to focus on developing our footprint across West Africa first, then we’ll decide how we want to conquer the entire continent.
What would you like to accomplish in your new role?
My objectives are to drive efficiency within the team. To ensure that the legal unit would be an enabler for business, ensuring that we achieve key strategic objectives without exposing the business to risk. In order to do that, we’re placing great emphasis on efficiency, learning and development, and ensuring that there is integration between commercial, sales and legal.
As the General Counsel for a leading technology infrastructure company, how is the legal department utilizing technology or Alternate Legal Service Providers for its needs?
I’d like to say across three core functions: on the learning and development side, we found the use of technology quite useful. Since I’ve come, I’ve seen that there’s stronger emphasis on leveraging knowledge using tools such as LinkedIn learning. We have an internal tool called the MainOne Academy, which is a virtual learning space that has been created where internal resources are able to contribute knowledge in order to bridge the knowledge and skills gaps within teams. In terms of legal tools, we’ve focused on self-creating tools; because we have a lot of knowledge about the business, it’s really more about making sure that the knowledge is institutionalized and also that there’s access to that knowledge, that’s more of a focus really for our space. On the commercial sales side, there is a lot of emphasis on automation for us, like automating our contracting process. So we’re leveraging on Enterprise Resource Planning systems that enable us to drive efficiency, reduce the business risk as well, and enables us to service both our internal and external stakeholders in an efficient way. Because we are technology company, there is a constant drive to keep on self- innovating so can drive efficiency, because we’re just going through a big automation process right now, where we’re really just trying to overhaul our services to better serve our internal and external stakeholders and the ability to sell and the customer’s ability to buy.
So, in this current dynamic, where do you see a place for external counsel?
So, it’s interesting, I got an email from a guy who is trying to convince me of the value proposition of a platform he created for interacting with external counsel. Is there a need for that kind of technology? I guess so. What is happening generally across the Nigerian legal industry is that there is significant price erosion because of the macro-economic situation and the proliferation of boutique law firms, which is good if you’re on the buy side of the dynamic. We tend to, which I think is the reality of time, do as much as we can, internally. However, there are certain things we will not do internally, for instance, where expert perspective or a governance solution is required. We’re really focused on optimizing our existing assets and right now there isn’t much need for external counsel. However, what we consider when choosing external counsel is knowledge experience at a very good price that can deliver within an excellent timeframe. So, fundamental external counsels are still very important for our business especially for areas where we think expert opinion/services is required or to mitigate certain risks and liabilities.
Data and technology is driving a lot of infrastructural developments, currently. How do you foresee that these sorts of developments will have an impact on the legal business industry?
The changes that have been technology- driven thus far have been very good for both the legal industry and the consumers of legal business; law firms have better access to market and consumers can reach law firms across borders. Tech has been good for the (Nigerian)legal business but where we still need a lot of development is in the area of knowledge management and data analytics. In this jurisdiction, knowledge is individualized, as opposed to other markets where the institutional knowledge is far greater that the individual’s. Tech has been used as a repository to collect, archive, and commercialize knowledge. As a result, law firms in other jurisdictions are better able to generate and turn around docs, provide clients with legal advice because they have both the knowledge banks and data to do so speedily. I think people are slightly missing it by making the conversation about whether or not lawyers will no longer be needed because of machine learning. I think the focus should be on things like these, data analytics, knowledge management and talent management. How do use technology to help you both manage and retain talent? Are you able to work remotely? Improve productivity? And a big part of this conversation hinges on our core product offerings: connectivity, co-location and cloud services. Connectivity, which is about greater broadband penetration enables this sort of decisions; cloud services ensure you can work remotely and access your documents from anywhere, and the knowledge is gathered, collected and archived as data and kept it in a location that is safe and secure. That’s where I think technology should really be a driver for the legal space.
On the same note, one of the chief concerns of legal tech and its evolution is privacy and client confidentiality. As MainOne offers a bedrock of infrastructure that is required to enhance the propagation of legal tech in West Africa, could you speak to the validity or otherwise of these concerns?
The legal profession does impose confidentiality obligations on lawyers, and that position has been further strengthened by the global emphasis on data privacy. NITDA came up with NDPR, our version of GDPR, which also focuses a lot of ensuring the protection of a data subject’s information. So, in addition to the Legal practitioners’ practice obligations, we also have regulations that require that we put in place all necessary protections to keep the information safe. Most people within the legal industry have to scrutinize how they process and share information because I think that on a superficial level we talk about it, but on a more in-depth level there is still a lot that could be done in terms of ensuring protection of client’s data and information especially because there hasn’t been any obvious consequence of breaches in confidentiality within the Nigerian space. By this, I mean, are documents properly password-ed and taken off-premises without jeopardizing confidentiality? Are client’s documents archived in a digital or physical repository? If digital, do you have strong malware in place? Who is the host? Is the host offshore or onshore? Especially, because there has been a significant increase in cyber-security breaches. What we offer for instance, on the cloud and co-location side, we have the biggest co-location center in West Africa, here in Lagos, it’s a 600 rack, 4 megawatts tier-3 data center, providing co-location, cloud services and extra malware protection for those that want. The legal industry needs to start considering both from a business and a risk perspective, the location, safety and security of customer data, especially since most of the information is digitalized and susceptible to cyber threats and breaches. As we move away from physical paper to digital, localizing information within personal servers or on other people’s servers, the kind of security architecture in place will continue to be a thematic occupation when it comes to the issue of privacy and confidentiality
Tech regulation is still developing; we find that to afford the company its best protection, a lot of detail must be taken during the contract stage; things like offences that haven’t been delved into by regulation. Still, some advocate for loose regulations to support innovation and others more. What would you consider a happy medium?
I think they are two different issues. On the innovation side of the spectrum, regulation doesn’t spur innovation, however, as a consequence of innovation strong regulations are required to protect investment. With respect to data privacy and protection, I definitely think that the NDPR provides a very good regulatory framework for the industry. I’d like to see more regulation on data residency, and I’d explain to you why. I had mentioned that as legal practitioners we need to ascertain the security of client information and the integrity of where it is warehoused, and an obvious ramification of l not doing so, is susceptibility to breach. Besides that, if it is in a location where access isn’t guaranteed, it puts you at risk. Right now, a significant portion of digital information is being stored offshore which poses a huge security risk. There are a number of agencies that store their data offsite whereas that data should be resident in Nigeria. There are data residency prescriptions in the EU for instance that ensures that data relating to EU citizens is kept within the EU and they do that both from a security and sovereignty perspective, because you want your information and those of your citizens to be local, not susceptible to any manipulation. An added benefit is that it grows the local economy; If your data is resident in-country, it means there are more data centers, so to speak, that are able to provide data warehousing services which means more revenue for them. Also, the individuals are able to route their transactions a lot faster because they can do peer-to-peer and point-to-point communication. It also encourages foreign direct investment. Sovereignty and security are the big considerations and a lot more focus should be on data residency.
In your view, what are the least understood aspects of the Finance Act, 2020?
I think it’s the early days and those grey areas will be clarified by further circulars, case law and industry engagement. The act does talk about “significant economic presence” as the yardstick for taxing offshore technology companies that have a presence in Nigeria but uses a very subjective yardstick- “subject to the Minster’s discretion”- for determining what that is. Easily, the most misunderstood is the exact impact of the increase in VAT, a lot of businesses have been arbitrarily applying the 2.5% increase across board on all their products and services without looking at the Act to see that there are a number of items that are non-vatable items. For the operators within my sector, it does mean an increase in the tariff structure which will be borne by the consumer. But on the whole, it’s the biggest reform we’ve ever done, and there is an unnecessary amount of focus on the increase without looking at the other incentives that the law provides.
Nigeria recently signed on to the Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA), which envisions a single African market. How has MainOne positioned itself to take advantage of this?
There is still a lot of conversation around the implementation of AfCFTA, looking at the different sectors and how we’re all going to compete on favourable terms. For the tech industry, I mean I won’t talk about MainOne, but because of the way technology business is, you already have most of the key players in different jurisdictions. We are already in four jurisdictions, and growing, as long as there is a business case and an incentive to be in a market, definitely we would go there. Would AfCFTA accelerate that decision? It may, if there’s sufficient incentive that drives the business. So, we welcome AfCFTA to the extent that it provides an incentive for us to do business in other countries.
It’s been said that by the year 2036, 114,000 jobs that lawyers do now, would be automated. What is your strategy for ensuring that MainOne’s legal department stays ahead of the curve?
I think we should focus on more technology being an enabler to drive more efficiency, to drive more revenue for businesses, to expand, because I think the Nigerian legal space is not where it should be, there is still a lot of reform that needs to happen. One of the biggest reforms that there needs to be certainty in terms of our adjudicatory process. If there isn’t we’d continue to rely on English law and do transactions based on English governing law, and to the extent that that keeps on happening, we can’t make Nigeria a hub for West African dispute resolution which if we could, would mean more business for Nigerian lawyers, and more inflow of investments as well. Are we able to use technology as a way of reforming our court system? Enabling more business for our law firms? Those are things I’ll rather have conversations about, instead of talking about how technology is going to make lawyers extinct. Where we are now, our problems are quite different from developed markets who have pretty much figured these issues out. So, in 2036, I’d like to assess how we have been able to use technology to answer these questions
Abayomi Adebanjo has a postgraduate degree in Mergers and Acquisitions from the College of Law, England and Wales and a master’s degree in Business Administration from Lagos Business School. He is a member of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) with an International Certificate in Financial Securities & Corporate Finance from London School of Economics & Political Science, and a Certificate in International Finance Law from the University of Oxford/Euromoney. He has a first degree in law (LLB) from Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife. Prior to joining MainOne, Abayomi was Co-Head of the Financial Services Sector of Jackson, Etti & Edu, and also headed the Banking & Finance Unit of the firm. Abayomi was nominated and ranked yearly as a “Rising Star” by ILFR from 2013 – 2019 and has been recognized as a “Leading Lawyer” by Chambers Global. Recently, he won the African Legal Rising Star award at the 2018 African Law Digest Awards.