Young Business Lawyer Spotlight: Special feature
''The courage to try makes all the difference'' - Femi Gbede
Full name – Femi Gbede
Firm – Fried, Frank, Harris, Shiver and Jacobson LLP
Area of Practice – Investment Funds
Years of Experience – 11 years
Professional Summary – Femi Gbede is an Investment Funds attorney at the New York office of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver and Jacobson LLP. He represents and advises clients on the structuring and offering of domestic and international private equity funds, hedge funds and other alternative investment vehicles. His practice focuses on all aspects of fund formation, as well as continuing funds’ operations, fund investments, secondaries and other highly complex transactions. He also provides clients with advice on federal and state laws and regulations governing securities, funds, and advisers.
He was the recipient of the Outstanding Young Lawyer of the Year award at the 2021 ESQ Nigerian Legal Awards and was also named to the National Black Lawyers Top 40 under 40 list, in the United States. Femi, who is the Treasurer of the Nigerian Lawyers Association in New York, is also a trained journalist and a Director at the Africa Arbitration Academy.
Four Questions with Femi
What has your experience in the legal industry been so far and what have you learnt?
I started my legal career at Olaniwun Ajayi LP in Lagos, Nigeria. While I was there, I had the opportunity of working on headline-grabbing transactions across a broad range of industries. The firm is renowned for working on the biggest deals. For example, I was part of the team that advised on the Azura Azura-Edo IPP 450 MW open cycle gas turbine deal, the very first project-financed IPP in Nigeria. When I joined, I moved around a few practice groups starting with Banking and Finance and ending the journey with the Dispute Resolution group before I moved to the United States. It was in the US that I got exposed to Investment Funds practice.
Are there any significant differences between working in a foreign law firm and a Nigerian one?
If you worked with the big full-service law firms in Nigeria, you’re probably already used to the crazy hours. So, there is nothing new to learn from that perspective. You’re more than prepared. Also, you’ll have your own legal assistant. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a junior or a senior. Someone is there to help you with the small stuff so you can focus on the real work. More importantly, it’s more financially rewarding. Again, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a junior associate, senior or a partner. Outside of the likes of Olaniwun Ajayi and the other big firms, law practice in Nigeria is like slavery for junior lawyers. The law firm owners make a lot of money but throw crumbs at their juniors on the pretext that they are learning. Why can’t learning go hand in hand with being paid well?
In terms of practice, if you’re a litigator, you may be surprised as there will be certain practices that you won’t be familiar with, especially if you’re moving from a common law jurisdiction to a civil law one. While the common law system is adversarial, the civil law system is inquisitorial. The United States system is big on discovery. A lawyer from a civil law jurisdiction will find that odd. Nigeria is a common law jurisdiction, so is the United States. To that extent, you’ll see some intersections like cross examination, for example. At the same time, you will find some differences. Even within the US, states’ practices may differ. However, for corporate practice, most things will be familiar. If you’re an M&A lawyer for example, you’ll discover that deal principles are broadly the same; the applicable laws will certainly be different.
You’ll also find that many firms have existed from time immemorial. That’s not something you’ll see often in Nigeria. Apart from the few sophisticated firms that have entrenched partnerships, the vast majority vanishes as soon as the founder dies, and that’s because many a time, the succession plan is just not there. Specialization is another noticeable thing you’ll see. You’ll also see a lot more structure here. Perhaps, I should have mentioned this earlier. When you’re admitted to practice, you’re admitted to practice in a particular state. In Nigeria, you’re licensed to practice in all the states of the federation.
What inspired your scholarship fund for law graduates?
My scholarship program is really just a way for me to give back. I started it in 2017/2018. I only had one beneficiary at that time. Today, I have eight (8) of them at the Nigerian Law School. I recently collaborated with Africa Health Holdings (soon to be Carepoint) which has offices in New York, Lagos, Nairobi and Accra, to offer paid internships to the scholars. It gives me joy to see the scholars get called to the Nigerian Bar every year. I was fortunate to have studied on scholarship myself, based on academic merit. My scholarship targets bright students who are unable to afford the prohibitive law school tuition. I’ll continue to make it available every year to the best of my ability and I hope that they will also pay it forward when they are in a position to do so.
What is the best advice you have ever received?
The best advice I have received is to never be afraid to fail. The possibility of failure prevents a lot of people from achieving success. The earlier we understand that failure is a critical part of any successful life, the better. A lot of people will rather stay in their comfort zone because they are afraid that if they venture into new areas, or do something new, they will fail. That’s a warped mindset. The progress we have seen in the world today is because of innovation. People dared to do the impossible and succeed. The courage to try is really all that makes the difference. We learn from failure.