In my years of law practice, I’ve discovered that a lot of entrepreneurs make the mistake of putting off all legal issues until they are threatened with a lawsuit. They tend to engage professionals only after a problem has arisen. There is a saying that ‘prevention is better than cure.’ This is quite true. It costs you less to prevent a legal issue from arising than solving it when the issue has arisen
Legal practitioner and author, Ifeoma Ben is the founder of Legal Business Network (LBN), a platform that assists enterpreneurs to build legally protected businesses. She’s also the founder of Justice Vault Foundation (JVF), a non-profit organisation that offers free legal services to the less privileged.
Prior to obtaining a Law Degree from the Imo State University, Owerri, and a Masters Degree in Law from the University of Lagos, Akoka, she had obtained a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Religious Studies from the University of Calabar. An associate of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators, United Kingdom (CIArb), a graduate of the Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators of Nigeria (ICSAN), Nigerian Institute of Management (Chartered) (NIM) and member of the National Association of Catholic Lawyers (NACL), she has served as the Assistant Secretary of the Human Rights Committee of the Nigerian Bar Association
(NBA) Lagos Branch and is currently the Assistant Secretary of the NBA, Lagos Branch.
In this interview with NGOZI EGENUKA, Ifeoma, who is a partner with Eminence Solicitors, shares her passion for helping entrepreneurs gain clarity about the legal aspects of their businesses among other issues.
What really endeared you to legal profession?
MY Father read Law (though not practicing law). While growing up, I always enjoyed his conversations and argument with lawyers; I loved the way they presented and analysed issues and I loved the boldness in the way they spoke. They always talked about Law being a noble profession and I said to myself that I would be a Lawyer.
Even after obtaining a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Religious Studies, I was still determined to read Law, which has been my dream course and I’m glad I achieved the dream. I love the Legal Profession; I love solving legal problems and helping people meet their legal needs.
What’s the key focus of the Legal Business Network (LBN)?
The Legal Business Network (LBN) is an entity set up to address the legal problems entrepreneurs face in their businesses. It aims at enlightening and educating entrepreneurs on the legal aspect of business, helping them build legally protected businesses. LBN also organises conferences and trainings for lawyers on topical issues, equip them with business skills and educate them on how to leverage technology to build a 21st century law business.
Recently, the Legal Business Network organised a conference, which focused on leveraging technology to build a profitable law practice. Issues on law firm management, data protection and privacy by law firms, design thinking in law practice, how technology can be used to improve work process and service delivery in law firms, how specialisation and technology can enhance visibility in law practice, building a career in emerging technology-driven practice were addressed.
We also focus on seminars for startups and entrepreneurs, addressing various subjects on law and business, such as legal issues in online business in Nigeria; how to build a legally protected business; taxation; legal issues in real estate transactions; franchising as a pathway to entrepreneurial success in Nigeria. One of the seminars centered on media and entertainment business and discussed issues bordering on creation, protection and merchandising of entertainment brands and products. Legal issues in digital entertainment and social media; contractual relationship between players in the entertainment industry; the role of lawyers in entertainment contracts were also covered.
How important is the knowledge of law in running a business, especially for entreprenurs?
A lot of entrepreneurs fail in their businesses because they failed to get it right from the start. A lot of businesses fail because they do not pay attention to the legal aspects of their businesses. In my years of law practice, I’ve discovered that a lot of entrepreneurs make the mistake of putting off all legal issues until they are threatened with a lawsuit. They tend to engage professionals only after a problem has arisen. There is a saying that ‘prevention is better than cure.’ This is quite true. It costs you less to prevent a legal issue from arising than solving it when the issue has arisen.
Are there ways lawyers can help entrepreneurs build legally protected businesses?
The first is in creating a better business setup. A lot of start-ups are confused as to the appropriate corporate structure to use for their business. The decision on how to form your business will influence several aspects of the business, which includes how profits and losses are shared, how the business pays taxes and who runs the business. You need to have a legal expert by your side when you are starting a business so as to ensure that you are taking the right step in your business. Based on your needs, a lawyer can help steer you in the right direction in selecting the legal structure for your business.
Lawyers can help entrepreneurs make better business decisions; business owners usually do not have the time to study provisions of the law relating to their business, so they make legal mistakes. Having business lawyers on retainer helps you make informed business decisions in accordance with the law.
In business transactions, entrepreneurs often enter into negotiations and sometimes do not have clear-cut agreements. In some cases, we find out that there was no valid contract only when the matter goes to court. It is essential to have a Legal Advisor who ensures that these contracts are properly reviewed before you sign them. Other aspects lawyers can help are in transactions with other businesses, dispute resolution, intellectual property protection and others.
What legal advice would you give to a business owner and how accessible and affordable are legal services?
Every business needs a legal advisor; businesses should build relationship with a good lawyer early enough in the life cycle of the investment. Your legal advisor will get to know the intricacies of your business and give legal advice when necessary. In fact, every business should have a budget for legal services. Be wise, seek legal counsel and protect your business from liabilities.
Your expertise as a lawyer has seen you engaged in pro bono services under your NGO. What informed that decision?
Justice Vault Foundation was born out of the burning desire to provide legal services to the less privileged in society. I have been a very active member of the Nigerian Bar Association, Lagos State Branch, and had the opportunity to work as the Assistant Secretary of the Human Rights Committee of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Lagos branch (2017-2019). We worked diligently in achieving the objectives of the Committee in decongesting the prisons.
When I was serving as a member of the Human Rights Committee, we often visited the various prisons in Lagos State and took briefs of some of the inmates. Whenever we visited the prisons, we interviewed the inmates and we discovered that some of them had no reason to be there; some of them were arrested when the police raided their area. A lot of them were awaiting trial and some have not even been taken to court. When we followed up on some of the cases and entered appearance for them in court, a lot of charges were struck out, as there were no evidences to prove the cases.
My experience sparked the fire in me to set up an organisation that will fight for the protection of human rights, especially for those who do not have anyone to speak for them.
Not many lawyers today will engage in pro bono services, especially with the cost implications. How have you been able to fund your charity?
In Justice Vault Foundation, we are working on collaborating with international organisations and other organisations with similar objectives. With my experience in pro bono services under the Human Rights Committee and also under the National Association of Catholic Lawyers, it is always a difficult task. We spend a lot of time and money in defending such cases, but the joy of rendering service to God and humanity will keep driving us.
What do you enjoy most about law practice?
I focus more on corporate and commercial law practice. I love meeting creative business owners and I help them figure out the big legal picture for their businesses and answer their legal questions. I consult for a lot of business owners and help them build businesses that are legally compliant and avoid liabilities; I love helping people solve their problems. I help entrepreneurs gain clarity about the perfect business organisation for their businesses, structure their businesses, enlighten them about legal aspects of business so that they can avoid losing their businesses and investments for going against the provisions of the law. It gives me joy to take people from the state of confusion to being happy and productive.
What keeps you going in your practice? Do you think there are laws that need to be adjusted, rectified, to serve common purpose?
The joy of solving clients’ problems is a great motivation in my practice; I feel fulfilled when my clients are happy and satisfied. Some of our laws need to be reviewed in order to serve the real purpose for which they were enacted. With particular reference to corporate law, the principal legislation is the Companies and Allied Matters Act 1990, which is about 30 years old. The Senate recently passed a Bill for an Act to repeal the Companies and Allied Matters Act 1990 and enacted the Companies and Allied Matters Act 2020. The Bill when signed into law by the President will facilitate the ease of doing business and boost investment in Nigeria.
What challenges have you faced in this profession?
As a Lawyer who works for a lot of startups and entrepreneurs, I often come across startups, who complain about not having sufficient funds to pay for legal services; a lot of them consider legal services as expensive. Some of them do not even have a budget for legal services and they tend to run to a lawyer only when there’s a problem on ground, instead of taking preventive measures. It then becomes difficult to strike a balance between helping startups build legally protected businesses and remaining profitable in law practice.
Regarding gender based violence, what’s your advice to women on seeking justice?
Everybody, including women, have the right to fight for their rights. When women’s rights are infringed upon, they have the right to seek justice. Most of the gender-based violence such as rape, wife battery, domestic violence are criminal offences prohibited by law and offenders are liable to be prosecuted in accordance with the law.
Women should always stand up for their rights. Women have the right to live free from violence, to own property and the rest. These rights are enshrined under the constitution and international documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. So, to me, promoting women’s right means fighting for justice.