How to become a corporate lawyer

Onyema Ugorji - A corporate finance lawyer
Onyema graduated from LLB Law in 2010

I don’t imagine it’s typical for recent law graduates to have their own office room in the London branch of one of the world’s most international and reputable law firms, but within 5 minutes of meeting Onyema Ugorji it’s easy to understand why he has. He’s only 28 years old but he carries himself like someone twice his age – yet manages to remain incredibly approachable.

Basically, he wears success very well. And he’s more than happy to reveal the secrets to becoming a corporate lawyer…

What is your job title?

I’m a corporate finance lawyer focusing on banking finance primarily. It’s a broad area of law, encompassing, for example, leverage finance, structured finance and project finance, so I won’t go into too much detail.

And you’re working at Latham & Watkins – one of the big hitters…

Yeah, I’ve been here for just over 1 month now. Prior to that I was at another international law firm in the City but I wanted a new challenge and L&W are a very good firm with a strong reputation all around the world.

Describe a typical day for you?

To be honest, there is no such thing. There are periods of stability but every day is different really. Different challenges, different demands. Because you’re working with so many different people – your colleagues, fellow lawyers. And then on the external side of things you’re also constantly liaising with clients. Perhaps trying to structure a deal. And they have high expectations and demands of you. Any day can present something new and exciting. But there is no such thing as a typical day really.

How many emails do you receive on a daily basis?

Ha! There are days when I’ve received emails in the hundreds. But equally I may only get 20 or so. It depends on the size of the transaction you’re working on and the number of people involved. But it’s not uncommon for lawyers to receive between 100-200 emails in a single day.

Some of these you can dump straight into the recycle bin though, right?

Ah afraid not! You see the thing is you don’t want to miss out on key information. And as a lawyer you have a very central role to play with any transaction. You’re managing that process for your client, so the expectation is you always know what’s going on and are on top of it. If you’re not checking all your emails you might miss out on a couple of things.

Young SOAS alumni out in Lagos

Onyema (far left) with fellow alumni at an event in Lagos, Nigeria

What do you enjoy the most about your job?

The intellectual challenge and intellectual stimulation that comes with it. You’re constantly challenged to think outside the box. People see you as a resource of information and ideas. Your client will be on the phone to you and you as their lawyer need to be able to provide answers quickly.

So you’re constantly learning, constantly pushing yourself, which is, for me, very exciting. My part of the industry, finance, is very regulation heavy. Especially since the recession. So as a lawyer you need to be on top of the regulations and you need to understand how the regulations impact on clients’ business activities. It’s just a very intellectually stimulating career and I really enjoy that aspect of it.

What do you find to be the most challenging?

I’d probably say it is the long hours even though it sounds cliché. On a good day I probably leave the office between 6-8pm. On a bad day – it could be as late as 12:00 midnight or even the next day! I’ve done a number of all-nighters. It’s not just a TV myth.

And where are you from originally?

I’m from Nigeria. I grew up in the southern part but one of my parents is from the eastern part of the country. I was about 15 when I moved to the UK. My parents, myself and my siblings all came over together, mainly for a better life and the educational opportunities. I did all my tertiary education here in the UK.

But Nigeria is still a very important part of me. I keep going back whenever I have the time and opportunity to. In my current practice I’m heavily involved in Africa work and markets, which is another aspect of working at Latham & Watkins that I really love – it’s so international.

What advice would you give to someone who is interested in becoming a corporate lawyer?

You have to be very pro-active. The legal career is very, very competitive. I looked at a survey a while ago and it basically talked about how the number of graduates coming out of law school has more than quadrupled in the past 10 years. As a result of that there is a massive demand for corporate law jobs.

There are so many highly-talented law graduates out there – and non-law graduates too – who are looking for a corporate job in the City. So because of that mismatch between supply and demand, you have to be among the very best. And you have to be very pro-active. So make sure you know how the market works; speak to the right people; know when you need to be making your applications, what are the requirements and eligibility criteria…

Success is all about information. So be informed.

You have to be very pro-active. The legal career is very, very competitive.

Is Brexit going to radically shift the landscape for international law practices such as yours?

It’s a constantly evolving area. It’s an issue everybody is concerned about, including lawyers, I think. It’s that uncertainty aspect that worries people. We’ve been in the EU system for so long, so trying to break away from it is not going to be easy.

And London is a financial hub for Europe and the world, especially when it comes to emerging market matters. So Brexit is kind of a big monster lurking; but I think, on a more positive note, Brexit can also bring with it many opportunities. Not least for junior lawyers hoping to work in the City.

How did studying law at SOAS help you in your career?

Studying at SOAS has been very instrumental to my career. The knowledge I have acquired has given me the opportunity to approach transactions from a broader perspective. A lot of the deals we work on are very international, and a lot of the clients we work with are multicultural, so there are different cultural expectations. Coming from an institution like SOAS where you are always learning about different cultures and legal systems and seeing how they are able to interact has been very useful to me.

So you’re 28, you’ve already got your own office, are we going to see your name on the door one day?

Yeah, I’d love to think so. I’m a very positive and optimistic person. And you know my name ‘Onyemaechi’, it means ‘who knows tomorrow’ in English – so I try to live by that name, so we’ll see ha ha.

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