#LLAInterview – “A woman can succeed anywhere provided she remains true to what she believes in.” Stella Duru, Partner at Banwo & Ighodalo

Stella Duru

Stella Duru is the first female partner in the Energy Practice Group at Banwo & Ighodalo law firm. Her rise to the top will definitely motivate you. It is a story of passion, commitment and the resolute belief that no challenge is too difficult to overcome. Because of her grit, many women have found themselves leading the pack in the area of oil and gas in the legal field. You will surely enjoy our interview with her.

Hello Ms Duru. Can you please tell us a bit about yourself?

I am a Partner in the EPG practice, (specializing in Energy and Power) in the Nigerian law firm of Banwo & Ighodalo. I come from a happy, close knit and large family of six children. I am the 4th of 6 Children and the 2nd daughter with 2 older brothers, an older sister and 2 younger sisters! My parents are the absolute best parents in the world.

I am from a little village called “Alike” in a slightly bigger town called “Umunumo” which is located in the “Ehime-Mbano” Local Government Area of “Imo” State. Imo State is one of 5 states within the South Eastern part of Nigeria.  My parents are retired – my dad was a banker and my mum, a teacher.

I am proud to state I am “home grown…made in Nigeria”, as all of my education was in Nigeria. I attended a Catholic Primary School – St. Mary’s Private School, Lagos State; then went on to the prestigious Queen’s College, Yaba, also in Lagos State (one of the oldest secondary schools in Nigeria). Had my undergraduate studies in University of Lagos, Akoka, Lagos.

I was called to the Nigerian Bar in 2001 and I have worked at the law firm of Banwo & Ighodalo, since then! I love travelling and when I find the time, and I absolutely love to cook.

What informed your decision to pursue a legal career?

My love for intrigue and righting wrongs! Though cliché-ish, Nelson Mandela (God Bless his memory) unknowingly played a “larger than life” role in my pursuit of a legal career.

Can you take us through how you rose up the ranks in your career?

A very green horn, I started my career as “Youth Corper” in Banwo & Ighodalo. The Nigerian Youth Service Corp programme involves a mandatory 12 months service to the Nation, which requires recent graduates working in organizations and offices where they were assigned.

Following this period, you could be retained by the organization you were assigned where your work ethic, industry and the quality of your work is excellent. I am happy to note that I was retained in B&I, following the completion of my 12 months as a Youth Corper.

For the first 3 -6 years of my career, as is usual with any young lawyer trying to decipher what area of law to build a career in, I juggled litigation, general corporate commercial and energy (oil, gas and power), transactions. However, by year 5, it had become clear that I had certainly fallen in love with everything, oil, gas and power and my career took off at that point. At that time, I had become involved in advising oil and gas companies, negotiating industry specific contracts, and if I recall clearly, I had been drafted as part of the team diligencing the vertically integrated Government-owned power utility, known as National Electric Power Authority. Nigeria was deeply on a reform path at that time. Indeed, the Electric Power Sector Reform Act was passed into law in March of 2005.

Stella Duru 2

By my 6th year in B&I, I had started to lead teams in relation to certain oil, gas and power transactions and in recognition of my commitment to client satisfaction and quality delivery, I was officially elevated to the role of substantive Team Leader in the Energy Practice Group (“EPG”) and promoted to Senior Associate/Counsel and subsequently, Senior Counsel under the Firm’s former hierarchical structure.

Indeed, this elevation to the position of team leader, was shortly after I returned home, following a successful nine (9) week’s Africa Visiting Lawyer’s Internship Programme in the Law Firm of EdwardNathan (as it then was), in Johannesburg, South Africa. It is important to note that during my stint at EdwardNathan, I published an article on the Nigerian power sector, in the Business Law Review of the BusinessDay in July 2005. Thus, you would see my continuing relationship with the power sector whilst the oil and gas sector continued, ever so often to woo me.

I was admitted to Partnership, 11 odd years later in recognition of my loyalty, commitment and continuing push/tenacity for “bettering my best”.

In a nutshell, I rose through the ranks by remaining focused, committed, passionate about what I do, tenacious and never losing sight of the fact that client’s satisfaction remains paramount. I also hold dear, the principle that a lawyer is only as good as what she knows and how she uses what she knows in solving her clients’ problem.

You are the only female partner at Banwo & Ighodalo. How did you achieve this?

I am actually not the only female Partner in B&I. Our firm prides itself on being inclusive and have as many women as men in the Firm, smashing glass ceilings, in their areas of specialization. 

However, I am the only female Partner in the EPG of the Firm; which houses our Oil, Gas, Power and Mining deals/transactions.

Well, given the very technical nature of deals and transactions in this area of law, female lawyers have traditionally shied away from playing in this space. However, I love challenges and the ability to be a pacesetter and that helped in directing me into this area of law practice.

How do you ensure that your impact is felt in an environment that is dominated by men?

Simply, I get younger lawyers (especially younger female lawyers) to see that a woman can succeed anywhere provided she remains true to what she believes in and does her homework, smartly and with grit.

I think too much emphasis is placed on “Male dominance” and not too much time is given to actually doing the hard and smart work required for the job. So, I make time to deliver presentations to the Oil and Gas Club in the University of Lagos (my Alma Mater) and also give talks during the Career Fair at the same University and usually punctuate my talks with “pep talks” on how the world seemingly dominated by men, can be conquered by any focused, driven and intelligent lady.

Instructively, during my time in Houston negotiating the Brass LNG suite of contracts, I had an all female team and we were dubbed the “B&I Angels” as we were unrelenting in meeting our deadlines and “beating down on the men”, at the negotiation table! So I would think, I have been able to impact quite a few ladies who now have blossoming careers in oil, gas, and power sectors.

Can you tell us some of the values that you live by?

Hard/Smart Work; Integrity; Be inclusive; Go the Extra Mile; Be different; Do different; and have fun whilst you can.

All of these values I learnt from my parents. They remain my main motivating factor and influencers. It is also important to note that my parents ensured equal opportunities for the girls as well as the boys in the family. As mentioned above, I am from the Eastern part of Nigeria and traditionally, it was not the norm to educate the females (at least not up to high school and university levels) in the family as the men were thought as the breadwinners since the women will most likely be married off.

So my parents went the extra mile and they did differently from their peers and I can proudly state that all the children (even the daughters) are accomplished professionals today!

Stella Duru 1

In your opinion, do you think women are well represented on the partner level in the legal field?

Oh yes! Nigerian women in the legal field have been smashing class ceilings!

What does it take to have a successful career as a lawyer?

Passion! Without passion, you will not hunger for knowledge and will be unable to successfully improve yourself; a lawyer that is not knowledgeable cannot solve problems and if you cannot solve problems and then you can be chucked as having wasted the fees you paid for school, especially law school.

Dominating your skills – keep getting better at what you do. Commitment and Loyalty. Nurturing and maintaining relationships. Remaining relevant by continually updating your knowledge base!  

In your career, you specialized on renewable energy. How did you develop the interest in this area?

My interest in power generally, was linked to when a distant relation died on the operating table because of a power outage and no back up generator in the hospital. That kind of shaped my continuing interest in the energy space especially the link between gas and power. I hold strongly to the view that once we fix the power sector, then quite a huge chunk of our ills as a nation will slowly but surely be fixed.

What will you say is your most significant achievement so far?

Being able to convince one of our biggest clients that there was no requirement for international counsel on one of our deals and that we as a Nigerian Firm could successfully negotiate the relevant contracts (at cheaper rates, thus helping with the cost profile of the company) with the same if not better quality than our international colleagues.

I am happy to confirm that, we did deliver on that deal and excellently too; and the accolades from the Chairman/Managing Director/General Counsel of the company was deeply satisfying.

Also linked to this deal was my deep satisfaction that the ladies who were part of my team went on to become top notch negotiators/lawyers at the companies they joined after working with out Firm. Also, being invited to be a Speaker/Panelist at the Women in Energy Breakfast as well as the Africa Power Roundtable all the way in South Africa, between the 31st of January and the 2nd of February, 2017 is indeed a great feat!.

Every career comes with challenges. Can you tell us some of the challenges you have faced in your journey and how you overcame them?

Being able to overcome the narrative that, for certain type of deals, local counsel are not “good enough”. With narrative such as this, your only option is to continually give your very best at all times. You don’t overcome a challenge by talking about it. You continue to do you and you then find that the challenge doesn’t exist any longer!

Many believe it is difficult for a woman to have a successful career/ business and also successfully build a home. What are your thoughts about this?

I think it all boils down to being diligent and efficient. Also timing works well. You have to be very deliberate about what you want for you and ultimately find your “happy”.

It can be tough but I can say I see more and more women successfully managing these two roles; some may have health challenges because of a lack of sleep but they seem to be managing it quite well.

Most importantly, you must find a supportive spouse who is invested in seeing you succeed at both roles – as a mother and as that successful professional. Your success is his, ultimately.

What do you to during your leisure time?

Go to the movies; watch series; go to the Spa, read or write fiction and cook.

Where do you see yourself in the next five years?

First female Minister of Power? Minister of Petroleum? Who knows?

What advice do you have for young women who want to strike the right balance between career and family?

Love what you do and find time for family. Career cannot take the place of family and if you are all for family and cannot bring bread to the table by what you do, then you may not have a family after all.

Find the right balance, ask God for guidance when it gets overwhelming and frustrating. Take a deep breath at such times and then very quickly, get back to the grind.

Don’t forget to find time for you though; without you, there is no career and simply, a memory in the family.

The Leading Ladies Africa Series is a weekly interview series that focuses on women of African descent, showcases their experiences across all socio-economic sectors, highlights their personal and professional achievements and offers useful advice on how to make life more satisfying for women.

It is an off-shoot of Leading Ladies Africa, a non-profit that promotes women empowerment and gender inclusion for women of African descent.

Do you know any woman of African descent doing phenomenal things? Send an email to editor@leadingladiesafrica.org and we just might feature her.

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