Aurélie Chazai is the founder and managing partner of Chazai & Partners, a business law firm based in Douala, Cameroon that provides innovative, accessible and tailored services to local and international clients. She is admitted to practice in Paris and Cameroon.
Her practice focuses on mergers and acquisitions, private equity, capital markets, banking and finance, project finance, commercial contracts, company restructuring and real estate.
Aurélie Chazai worked in the Paris office of the English based business law firm Ashurst LLP before joining the Paris office of the American law firm Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP in 2014. She intervened on a wide variety of corporate transactions in Europe and Africa especially in countries members of the Organization for the Harmonization of Corporate Law (OHADA) in Africa (especially in countries member of OHADA).
Aurélie Chazai has also worked at international law firms and companies based in Paris including Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP, Herbert Smith Freehills LLP, Linklaters LLP, CMS Bureau Francis Lefebvre, Ernst & Young, and in the capital markets department of AXA Investments Managers.
She has lectured Banking law at the Cergy Pontoise University in France from 2012 to 2013. Aurélie Chazai holds a Master’s Degree in Financial Law, a Master’s Degree in Business Law and Taxation, a Master’s Degree in Tax Law and a Bachelor Degree in Private Law from the University of Paris I – Panthéon Sorbonne. She is fluent in French and English.
She is a member of the African Business Lawyers’ Club (ABLC) an association promoting the migration of best practices of business law in Africa. Further, she is a member of the Association of Cameroonian legal professionals based in France promoting investment opportunities to potential investors in France and Europe.
Thank you for making out time to chat with us — in your own words — who is Aurélie Chazai?
Thank you for this opportunity! In a few words, I am a lawyer admitted to the Paris and Cameroon bars. For more than a decade, I worked in international law firms in Paris. I then decided to return to Cameroon where I founded Chazai & Partners with my two partners Flora Wamba and Sarada Nya; we have since been joined by our fourth partner, Emmanuel Massoda. This makes me an entrepreneur. I am also a daughter, a wife, and a mother of two.
How did you start out your career and how long have you been in the legal field?
I have been a licensed lawyer for 9 years now, and I have spent a total of 13 years in the legal field, with a focus on banking and finance and capital markets. Initially, I hadn’t really planned on becoming a legal professional. At one point, I was even contemplating becoming a medical doctor like my mother. I ultimately decided to study law, but really, I could have picked anything, as long as there was a scientific ring to it.
I was not disappointed though, because understanding and practicing law requires a high level of intellectual and scientific rigor. My affinity for numbers was also satisfied when I decided to go into banking and finance law and stock exchange law later on. I started by interning for international law firms when I was a student. Then I joined the Paris Bar Training School (École de Formation du Barreau) to become a lawyer. Then I worked as an associate at the Paris offices of Ashurst and Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton and went out to start Chazai & Partners in 2017.
Amazing! Tell us more about the work you do at Chazai & Partners.
Chazai & Partners is a business law firm that is primarily focused on Africa. Our goal is essentially to provide local and multinational corporations, banks, financial institutions, governments and other public sector entities, start-ups and individual investors with a full range of legal services adapted to the specific needs of local transactions and projects in Africa.
When we were still lawyers in Paris, we observed that many African or multinational corporations operating in Africa were systematically using European-based international firms, even though these firms had only theoretical knowledge of the applicable laws and regulations, and virtually no practical knowledge of the relevant markets.
This trend was certainly due to a lack of qualified local counsels for certain types of transactions, but also to a long-established habit of refusing to take African lawyers seriously. We wanted to change that − or at the very least to be a part of the movement that would change that.
As Africans, we believed we were best equipped not only to guarantee the best international standards and practices to our clients but also to help them navigate the cultural and administrative intricacies of the African markets. So, we established our firm with the idea of being active and competitive in all major areas of business law in Africa.
For example, we work in corporate law and mergers and acquisitions, banking and finance, insurance, real estate, oil and gas, energy law, competition law, public business law, or litigation and arbitration. Our Firm definitely aims for an international dimension. Our lawyers are admitted to three bars (Cameroon, Paris and Nigeria) and as we speak, we are present in Douala (Cameroon), Paris (France) and in Port-Gentil and Libreville (Gabon).
Tell us about a memorable case or issue you have worked on at Chazai & Partners.
The Firm was recently hired to restructure the refinancing of an EOCG 6,5% net 2016-2021 bond issued by the State of Congo (Brazzaville) on the CEMAC financial market through the issue of assimilable treasury bonds (OTAs) on the CEMAC money market.
What happened is that we organized the takeover and cancellation of the majority of the securities issued on the financial market at the time of the bond issue, and the simultaneous issue of OTAs on the money market to the previous owners of these securities, therefore allowing the bond to be repaid in advance through the OTAs issue.
In simple terms, a debt for which the Government was in immediate danger of defaulting was replaced by another debt with more favourable terms, thus relieving the pressure on the State Treasury.
This was certainly an innovation in terms of Government debt restructuring. It was the very first time that a transaction of this nature occurred in the CEMAC region. Even when I was still working in Europe, I don’t remember having ever seen anything like this. It definitely required a fair bit of legal engineering, and the fact that we were able to pull it off is assuredly a great source of pride for the Firm.
And what are the major lessons you’ve learned being a career woman?
The lessons I learned being a career woman are not fundamentally original. I learned that it is necessary to not only work hard but also abide by an uncompromising work ethic. It is also crucial to surround oneself with hard-working, well-meaning, dedicated people.
I also learnt that even though women face many inequalities and injustices throughout their careers, it is important to remain strong and never admit defeat. Finally, one of the most important lessons I have learned as a woman, a lawyer and a business owner is that it is okay to say no.
When a case or a deal would prove detrimental to you personally or to your organization, or when a colleague or a client is pushing you to engage in questionable behaviour, you should always say no. Hold on to your integrity because ultimately, a lawyer is only as good as their reputation. Also, there are lots of disbarrable offences out there, and jeopardizing your entire livelihood just to accommodate someone would be a very bad idea indeed.
Do you think that there are challenges that are specific to women in the corporate world?
There are definitely challenges that are specific to women in the corporate world. As a result of the patriarchy that still largely affects our societies, women are not given the same opportunities and chances as men, especially so in corporate settings. The corporate world definitely places an unfair burden on women to work twice as hard and to perform twice as well as men to get the same level of recognition, if any.
Women in positions of authority are often criticized or insulted when they try to effectively exert that authority. They are called angry or bitter, whereas men are called brave or no-nonsense. Women have to deal with harassment, sexual and otherwise, in the workplace. To this day, far too many complaints are not seriously addressed or investigated.
The gender pay gap also remains a very urgent problem, not to mention the persistent inequality in terms of parental leave or the very real discrimination faced by women who have or are looking to have children. For women of colour − black women, in particular, the hurdles are even greater in the international corporate world, as they often have to deal with racial discriminations on top of everything else.
And let’s not forget that there are entire jurisdictions where women in the workforce, let alone in the corporate world, is not even part of the equation. But in my own experience, these things are starting to slowly change. When we started Chazai & Partners, we were definitely met with some resistance or contempt that a men-led firm would never have had to endure.
But we never veered off-course and gained the market’s respect bit by bit. In just 4 years, we have become a leading law firm in Cameroon and Central Africa. That is certainly encouraging, and while it does not mean that all the above-mentioned issues will be resolved overnight, it is certainly a clear message to all women out there that they, too, can make it.
If you were to advise a group of women who desire a career path in the legal space, What do you think makes someone successful in this field?
To a group of women who desire a career path in the legal space, I would say that the law is a serious business that must be approached seriously. Self-discipline and intellectual rigour are key. I would tell them to be inspired by what has been accomplished before them, but also to be fearless innovators.
I would also tell them to always remember that in many respects, the cards are still stacked against them, so they should always be careful not to provide ammunition to the people who do not want to see them succeed.
On a more personal note, I would also advise them to never forget to take the time to live their own lives. It is true that the demands of the legal profession are high. For all lawyers, especially in business law, the short deadlines, the all-nighters and the occasional unmanageable client are a reality.
But contrary to a popular belief, the key to thriving in this profession is not to let oneself become completely consumed by the job. Rather, one needs to find a healthy balance between their work-life and personal life. When you’re on the job, give it your absolute all.
When you’re off, truly be off. Disconnect and unwind. Spend time with your friends and family, explore yourself and discover your passions. This will allow you to approach your work with a clear, level-headed mind.
Who are the greatest influences in your life and career?
I would say that the greatest influence in my life is my mother. She was a very hands-on mother, but she also instilled a true sense of independence and responsibility in us. She raised us to believe that we could do anything, and growing up, I watched her establish and maintain a successful medical practice, all the while taking care of her family; so I certainly believed that.
Career-wise, I would cite my mentor and friend Barthélémy Faye, who is a Partner at the Paris office of Cleary Gottlieb, where I worked prior to founding Chazai & Partners. He taught me a lot, not only about the law but also in terms of team management and career development. He works closely with his associates and is never afraid to give credit where it is due. That is definitely something I try to emulate with my own associates.
If you had an all-expense-paid trip to anywhere in the world, where would you go and why?
I would go to Japan. I’ve always been fascinated by Japan and its culture. I would just as enthusiastically read a good manga or a Yukio Mishima novel. Japanese cuisine is also a must for me.
However, I feel that for all that the Japanese mainstream culture has taken over the world, a lot remains mysterious and misunderstood about Japan. So, visiting and meeting the people would definitely help me gain a better insight into what truly makes and drives that country.
What does self-care mean to you, and what three things do you do to unwind?
To me, self-care relates to whatever one can do to improve and or maintain their general health, and also their mental health. To unwind and clear my head, I usually go to the gym or run in my neighbourhood.
I also love spending some quality time with my family and friends. Whenever I can, I practice the guitar at home. My kids certainly make for an enthusiastic audience.
The Leading Ladies Africa Career Conversation series 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.
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