At Crafty Counsel we regularly focus on getting to know more about a member of our cherished in-house legal community. This week we speak to Adeola Adebonojo, General Counsel of Contis, which is a banking as a service and payments company.
Adeola had just started at university in Nigeria to study law when she decided to return to the UK during the military dictatorship in Nigeria in the 1990s.
When she returned to the UK she had to restart her university education, putting her back by two years. However, this did not deter her from reaching the ambition of being a lawyer, and was eventually called to the Bar of England and Wales in 1999. Getting pupillage with chambers proved far more difficult to achieve and Adeola says she realised that with her “pedigree and background it would be near impossible to obtain pupillage”.
So, with her qualification as a “non-practising” barrister, she decided to look for other opportunities in the legal profession and found work as a paralegal for a city law firm. Not long after, she had her first big break with an opportunity to work for the computer company Dell.
“I loved it because it was tech, it was new and Dell had a very interesting business model,” she says. “I loved the fact that I was working with a business that was a big brand. I was very lucky to meet really lovely people who just took me under their wings“.
Adeola soon followed her boss to a London company, Tertio Software, where she got “stuck in” learning what it means to be an in-house lawyer. Her training included shadowing an “extremely experienced lawyer” to learn about negotiations and contracting.After this, Adeola then moved to a telecommunications company, Vanco. It was small, but it was listed on the London Stock Exchange, which meant that it had “a lot of visibility”.
It was the early 2000s, and Adeola was about to do something unheard of…
A pioneer of the in-house solicitor training route
During this, Adeola had expressed interest in training to be a solicitor. Her boss liked the idea and seconded her to law firm Ashurst Morris Crisp (as it was then called). “I told my boss at the time, I want to requalify” she recalls.“He goes, I’ll let you go and work for Ashurst. We’ll do an exchange. You go and get all the experience that you need, and then requalify and someone at Ashurst will take your position in the office..”
Adeola spent around a year at the firm before requalifying in 2005.
As one of the first lawyers to do so, Adeola was something of a pioneer for qualifying as a solicitor in-house, as opposed to following the well-trodden path of gaining a law firm training contract.
Although this route of training and qualifying in-house is “very popular now”, it was unheard of in the early 2000s, she says.
“I’m probably one of the very few lawyers who started that qualification,” she says.
“It’s very popular now. It’s the done thing and nobody bats an eyelid if you qualify in-house, but that was my route to qualification, and I enjoyed it immensely.”
Doing an MBA
As she was finishing off at the firm, she was given an opportunity at the professional services company, Accenture, where she remained for six years.
She then joined Helios Towers, a telecommunications infrastructure company, as the General Counsel for five years from 2012 to 2017.Adeola reported to the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and was brought into all decisions in the business. This included everything from operations to fundraising and understanding investors. She was thrown into the deep end and was “learning on the fly”.
But Adeola wanted a deeper understanding of how businesses operate.“I thought, my next thing is to understand business because I want to lead a business and not just with a legal cap on,” she says. The next logical step for Adeola was a business degree, so she decided to take a step back and pursue an MBA in Paris.
“As lawyers were always seen as the blocker or as a cost centre,” she says. “I thought at my time at Helios, I was much more than that.”
After completing her MBA, Adeola worked in a variety of consultancy roles with a range of companies that included “everything from a start-up to a FTSE 50” company.
“A lot of companies now just don’t want lawyers who are only going to do legal work,” she says. “Companies want lawyers who understand the peaks and troughs of business, what it means when a business is in growth mode or trying to improve their bottom line.”
The business want someone who can look at it holistically.Adeola Adebonojo
Talent and hobbies
Adeola feels that her unique talent is problem-solving and getting things done. She makes it clear to everyone not to come to her with problems, without having tried to think them through first.
“At Vanco, my CFO would always say, don’t come to me with a problem. Think about a solution. And let’s see if that solution works.”
“Let me know you’ve thought about it and that you’re trying to find a way, but don’t dump things on people. I think that’s not helpful. That’s not efficient” she says.
What is your favourite part of your current role?
Adeola is fascinated by business strategy. “It’s hard doing the day-to-day and supervising that, but you see everything that affects the business and having your colleagues wanting to hear your view is a huge attraction,” she explains.
What’s one cool thing you have seen in legal recently?
Adeola is very much a pen-on-paper person but believes automation will change the way lawyers do things. “It’s slow-moving because a lot of us are very much pen and paper,” she says.“I think there’s that extra consciousness that things have to be just right. So maybe we don’t necessarily trust the tech, but I think the way legal tech is coming along is impressive.”
One of the biggest challenges you have had to face in your in-house career journey?
“One of my biggest challenges has been going into a sector that I had never been into,” she says.
Adeola explains that doing the MBA helped her with her work in the financial sector. “I’ve come into the financial sector, which is extremely regulated, and I can only do that because doing the MBA gave me a boost of character and the ability to deal with uncertainty. I also developed the ability to consume a lot of data very quickly”.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
“You’ve got to be absolutely razor-focused on your goals and ambitions (whatever those are), and also be aware that it is not necessarily a straight line to get to your destination,” she says.
“There’s all sorts of opportunities to qualify in different ways, doesn’t make you less of a lawyer because you haven’t trained at a top city law firm. I think companies are realising that” she says.
Adeola says that those who feel a calling to the law should always put their best foot forward and be open to ideas. She recalls the example of a lawyer who worked with her at Helios.
“She was an extremely bright girl and a hard worker but no one knew who she was outside of work. I told her it is ok for people to know who you are as a person.”
“What people remember is how you are outside of work,” Adeola says. “People remember you because you’re a human being first before you’re a lawyer.
Adeola’s advice is:
- Be open to challenges and do not shy away from uncertainty.
- Have a learning heart and curious mind.
- Failure is not the end but an opportunity to do better next time.