In this first issue of Women In Law, we chat with Hameedah Oyenuga, an associate in one of Nigeria’s leading firms, Olaniwun Ajayi LP. The first-class degree holder from the University of Hertfordshire takes us on her journey of academic challenges and excellence and how she is on her way to making a name in the Power and Infrastructure Sector.
Would you say having a lawyer as your father influenced your career choice?
My dad being a lawyer did not remotely influence my decision to study law. In secondary school, I loved Arts and Social Science subjects like Government, Literature, and Economics and I excelled in them. Prior to commencing my senior secondary education, I had debriefing classes which allowed me to gain a brief insight into what it was like to go through the science and commercial route. It was then I knew I was not cut out for Science or Accounting related careers. My dad is a brilliant lawyer but my admiration for law has always been there, I just found it really interesting. My career choice was a decision I made independently.
You left Nigeria for the UK for your tertiary education. What were the difficulties you faced and how did you deal with them?
Moving to a country with a completely different curriculum and no foundational course made me struggle with my academics in the beginning. Unlike here in Nigeria where tests and exams make up the grades, theirs included tests, research, essays, and course works. I was new to the legal essay writing standard and in my first essay in Criminal Law, I got a grade lower than what I expected. My essays affected my overall score and I knew I needed to find a way around it. Fortunately, the University had a program called “drop-in’’ sessions which allowed students to meet their various lecturers to discuss the courses currently being taught as well as to seek guidance in case of any difficulty. their grades. I made good use of it by meeting with my Contract Law Lecturer then, who provided insights on how I could best use the University’s resources, especially with my essays. Her advice was what I implemented across my other courses. Culturally, I had to deal with calling my lecturers by their first names. It may seem minor but it took me a while to adapt to that change.
I think meeting with your lecturers for academic reasons should be normalized in our educational sector. Despite your academic challenges, you went on to found a voluntary organization. What was your inspiration behind it?
I have always had an interest in volunteering before I left Nigeria for the UK. I have volunteered for NGOs like Orphan Care Corp. For UNICEF On Campus, I had a friend in Canada who had the organization in her school and she spoke about it a lot on Twitter. At that time, I had just gained an interest in education and poverty elimination and I was in search of groups around me that aligned with this. I discovered that my intended school did not have the organization but other schools did. This piqued my interest and the idea won me an entry-level Vice-Chancellor scholarship.
I’m really interested in how your volunteering pitch won you a scholarship.
After I got accepted into the school, they held an orientation program here in Lagos which my parents and I attended. I had no idea there was a scholarship interview till we got to the program. My dad told me to go for it immediately when it was announced. It was funny because I had no idea what kind of questions I would be asked. Their only question was, “How do you intend to contribute to the community at the University of Hertfordshire ?” Because of my past volunteering experiences, I was able to pitch the plan I had for founding the organization. They loved it and I ended up winning the highest amount.
It is admirable how you have turned your passion into a recognizable feat. How did you go through with the plan when you resumed?
To be honest, starting out was not easy. I had to get it registered with the Students union and I was able to start with a few friends. I took advantage of the Freshers’ fair and convinced people to sign up. We had a lot of signups but signing up is different from showing up. I had to approach them individually before I was finally able to form a sustainable committee for the organization. It was a hectic but interesting journey. The first event we had was called “Beauty for Charity” which was intended to raise money for the education of children in the Central Africa Republic.
In the middle of heading the organization and handling academics, you graduated with a first class. How did you strike the balance?
I scheduled my school timetable to align with my commitment to the society, my part-time job, and my free time. My school had a lot of flexibility with respect to classes. One course was taught by different lecturers on different days. I was assigned to a particular lecturer but the system was advantageous for me as I was able to not only pick the lecturer who in my opinion taught the lectures best, I could also fit my classes according to my plan. It was not totally convenient but it was one of the sacrifices I had to make. I also learned to delegate as being a leader requires the ability to assign duties for the success of the organization.
Was graduating with a First Class your plan from the beginning?
Before I left for Uni, I planned on finishing with at least a second-class upper or higher. My parents and community also had high expectations of me, I just needed to believe in myself enough to make it happen. Besides, the exchange rate at the time was also ridiculously high, so I decided to get the best value for my money. After my first semester results, I decided to settle for a second class because I thought I couldn’t get a First with the grades I had. However, I met some new friends who were also international students and they all wanted a first class. I thought ‘I don’t know if these people are smarter than I or I’m smarter than them but if they are all aiming to get a first then maybe, I can also aim for a first and get it.’ Because I was already surrounded by people that actually wanted a first, I didn’t think it was out of reach. I knew I needed to get realistic and work towards it.
What changed? How did you work towards achieving the goal?
I met with my course advisors and requested to know how our courses were graded. I noted the grades I needed to have in each course to achieve the cumulative number required to have a first class. What I missed in my MCQ, I knew I had to make up for it in my exams or coursework. And that’s how I hacked it. Understanding my grading system really helped me in achieving my first class. Know where to channel your energy and work smarter and harder. I learned not to procrastinate and give myself time.
You graduated with good grades from a country with numerous opportunities. What fueled your decision to return to Nigeria, where there is an exodus of professionals?
I am not going to lie, I wasn’t going to come back. I just wanted to be called to the Nigerian Bar and be done with Law School. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to stay and continue practicing or go back and start the journey toward being a solicitor in the U.K. However, law school did not resume early and the pandemic also stretched the calendar from a one-year program to two years. I returned to Nigeria in 2019 and did not finish law school till 2021. By the time I was called, I was not sure if I still wanted to practice, so I decided to go into tech. I tried my hands at coding but I found it boring. The one thing I’m genuinely scared of is living a life that I did not choose for myself. So I chose to explore that path and erase any “what ifs”. Coding didn’t excite me as much as law did, so I decided to stick it out with Law. I applied to a few places and about a few months later, I landed a job that I liked and I resumed as an associate straight out of law school. Since then, I decided to stay back.
Can you tell us about your law school experience?
Law School was a different experience. I struggled at first because I was reading the same way I would have read if I was in Hertfordshire. There was so much to catch up on and so much to read. I remember reaching out to a friend that was called the year before we were and she said, “just read what you are taught in class”, and that was what I did. It was a different dynamic as I was in the pandemic set and we were expected to study from home. We had online classes that were really chaotic. Unlike where I schooled where we had pre-recorded classes and module guides and also had physical workshops/ seminar classes, we were given PowerPoint slides and had to find our way to understand them. Only a few lecturers made attempts to make the experience better and I’m very grateful for them. It was really tough.
How has the journey been since you moved back?
My journey has not been straightforward since I moved back. It has been me dipping my hands in different niches to find my path. During the whole time, I tried my hands on various tech courses and boot camps like Product Management, and front-end development, where I learned HTML, and CSS but Java Script told me to get a grip and go back to law. I loved project management and I finished my course on it but it did not interest me as law did. I was not ready to give up a career I really enjoyed for something that I would manage because I wanted to move to another industry. I realized I really loved the sector I’m in which is power and I want to develop my interest there in the next five to six years. In between my previous job and now, I’ve developed an interest in project finance and this inspired my move to my current workplace.
I would take it that staying back aided your career growth.
Quite frankly, if I didn’t move back to Nigeria, my career journey would probably have taken another turn and I’m very grateful for where I’m at right now. In hindsight, it was a blessing in disguise.
How did you land your first job?
After I posted my law school call-to-bar pictures on LinkedIn, I got several DMs asking me to send my CV. I sent them and one day, I just got a message requesting me to join a zoom call and I had my first pre-interview without any plans. I had three interviews before I landed the job but it was worth it because I got the job.
What was your experience like as a female lawyer at your first job?
My first job was unique because I wasn’t in a legal department but I was a lawyer on my team. We worked on projects outside of Nigeria in countries like Mali, Zimbabwe, DRC, and South Africa. It was a first-time experience and I had to do a lot of learning on my own as I wasn’t working in a legal department. I learned from documents, meetings, feedback, and precedents just to understand how things are being done. It wasn’t easy in the beginning but I got a hang of it and here I am today.
Are there female professionals you look up to in the legal field?
While in university, I didn’t have any mentors, and if I could go back and change one thing, I’d change that. I had my dad but I didn’t have any woman I particularly took as a mentor. But now, there are numerous exceptional women in the field and one woman I really admire is Adaku Ufere. I find her journey amazing and similar to mine. She also tried her hands at different things before building her career in the power sector. One lesson I’ve learned from Adaku and I’m always going to implement in my life is whenever there is an opportunity, just take it on. When I was job hunting, I applied for an internship in Gabon and I didn’t even know what Gabon looked like. I didn’t know their laws and I’d never been there, and that was just me rolling on the background of someone like Adaku. Whenever there was an opportunity in a sector that she found interesting, she picked it up and she’s presently an expert in the sector. Another person I admire is Olaedo Osaka, the CEO of West Africa for Daystar Energy. These two women are powerful women whose backgrounds and stories are really inspiring.
Are there other things you wished you knew while building your legal career? If you could, what would you go back to change?
As an international student, I wish I had more information about qualifying routes abroad. I knew there were Solicitors and Barristers that weren’t fused unlike in Nigeria, but I was solely focused on coming back to Nigeria for Law School. I applied for training contracts but I didn’t pursue them as I would have now.
I do not think I would change a lot as I think I did the best I could and made use of the resources available to me at the time. But one thing I would change is not giving up. Rejection is redirection and I’ve learned to implement it in my life. When I applied for training contracts then, I got about four rejections and I gave up. But the present me would strategize and review and just do things that make me better.
Can you tell us more about your NGO, Project Elevate? How has that been going for you?
I started Project Elevate after my failed internship search experiences, due to the inability to navigate the market. I noticed there is a gap between the professional market and the study itself and I wanted to bridge that gap. I wanted to do this by making students aware of the opportunities available within the legal sector and other sectors. I intended to start from secondary school, particularly public ones. However, it was very difficult getting a permit from the Local government in charge. I decided to do an event in a private school and that was the first edition. I have new plans for Project Elevate and I hope to relaunch it soon.
I look forward to it as there are emerging areas of law that law students are unaware of. What advice would you give young female law students?
One thing I’d always say is take a chance on yourself and better yourself. Nobody’s journey is set in stone.From my journey, there have been ebbs and flows. There were periods when I had to aggressively believe in myself in such a way that the world didn’t have choice but to believe in me too, and there were also times when I took a chance on myself and still didn’t get my desired result. I always say to myself that “any rejection is redirection.”
If you are not being a lawyer or trying your hand in tech, what do you do for fun?
I love to travel and read for fun, which mostly consists of fiction. When I’m not reading , I’m sleeping or watching reality TV. Sometimes, I also relax by going to the beach.