Uchendu Imo qualified in Nigeria, beginning his legal career at Aluko & Oyebode. In 2012, he moved across to the Guinness Nigeria in-house legal team as Commercial Legal Manager. Through the company’s Future Leaders Program, he moved in 2017 to the Diageo Global Legal Team in London where he currently works as the Head of Legal-Diageo Global Travel . Uchendu obtained his undergraduate from the University of Nigeria Nsukka and an LLM from the University of Cambridge.
1. On his motivations for entering the legal profession.
Uchendu’s path to the legal profession was less than conventional. “I didn’t really have one of those informed motivations for choosing a career in law as most people would, and this was mostly because I didn’t really know much or even anything about the profession.” Refreshingly honest, he admits, “If I can be blunt, I’ll say I was completely ignorant of the choice I was making at the time. I didn’t actually know or meet any real lawyer before I chose to study law. I cannot say that I had seen any on television or something like that to be influenced to want to become one. We never had electricity growing up, and definitely had no television.”
He goes on to add, “I did hear some adults eulogize the profession as one that comes with prestige, respect and of course some reasonable level of material comfort, and I guess I wanted that for myself, and mostly for my parents because I felt it was my duty give them something to be proud of. I guess what I am saying is that my decision to become a lawyer was mostly driven by a yearning to fill some perceived societal void that fate had created in my life and my family’s. You may be surprised to hear that this was not uncommon for kids of my age at the time, especially those who grew up in similar circumstances and by similar circumstances I mean where you didn’t really know much about what was going on in the real world outside of your family, your small town and had literally no one to mentor or guide you in making the right early career choices such as what courses to study”. Uchendu sums this up, “I count myself truly lucky that my gamble of ignorance turned out to be the most rewarding decisions of my life. In hindsight, I am grateful it happened exactly the way it did. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
2. The difficulties faced in his journey to becoming a lawyer.
The most significant challenge came quite early on for Uchendu. “Dad, who was a clergy at the time with very meagre income and 7 children, 3 of whom were at university during the same time, had absolutely no way of singlehandedly funding our studies. After my first year in school, I was asked to drop out so that my elder brother (now late) and my sister (the only daughter) could finish their studies first. On the day that I came into the campus to pick my things, I experienced an awakening and knew that I had to fight for myself to keep my dreams alive, and in that moment, I knew it was going to be a rough and thorny road, but the alternative was not even an option for me.”
Deciding not to drop out, Uchendu sought a more creative way of sustaining himself. After obtaining a small loan from a church Elder, Martins Onyemuru, he went straight to the Trade Fair and bought 3 phones, an umbrella, 3 plastic chairs, a plastic table and some other accessories needed to open a phone-booth in school. “I was spending 5-6 hours every day, under the rain and sunshine, sitting outside under that umbrella, in the middle of the campus, providing phone-call services to my fellow students who needed to contact their families and relatives. At the time in Nigeria, owning a private phone was a luxury and therefore most students could only reach their families through public phones. I had to be out there every single day, trying to make some money to stay in school, even on nights that I had law examinations to write the very next morning. This went on for approximately 4 years until I graduated in my 5th year”. Against all the odds, he managed to come top of his year, achieving a first-class honours qualification. This was followed by a further first class at the Nigerian Law School before receiving a fully funded scholarship from Trinity College to study an LLM at the University of Cambridge.
Adding to the admirability of these achievements is the backdrop to this struggle. A few months into his first year, he needed to raise funds for his university’s mandatory acceptance fee. Unable to source the N5,000 (£10), Uchendu travelled across to Lagos, a 9-hour journey form Eastern Nigeria. It was there that he visited churches, asking strangers for donations, but to no avail. “I was in Lagos, a place I had never been to or lived in before. So, I literally had no idea what I could do to help myself and begging for alms seemed like the easiest option.” Luckily, with some help from a family friend, Mr Oliver Onwuzurike, he was gifted two cartons of cream to sell, the proceeds of which would be put towards his admission costs. “I hit the streets of Lagos hawking the creams, the carton on my shoulder and a bottle in my hand to show passers-by. The funny thing was that I didn’t even know what I was selling because I had never seen that kind of cream before. In any case, I was only able to sell about 2 or 3 bottles. I guess I made the right decision being a lawyer after all and not a marketer or salesman. Towards the end of my wandering around Lagos looking for help, I met another elder from my church, Elder Paul Ananaba, who gave me some money, enough to pay the admission acceptance fee and travel back home. Now, you can understand part of the reasons I could not yield when this dream that I had sacrificed so much for was once again on the line.”
3. The moment diversity and inclusion became an important issue.
Diversity and inclusion began to resonate with Uchendu during his time in Guinness Nigeria. The recruitment process he witnessed was driven by genuine efforts to ensure gender and ethnic diversity. “As you know, Nigeria is a very multi-ethnic country. It was, therefore, necessary that the staff demographics of the company reflected this.” This was then amplified when he moved to the London office. “In London, I saw and experienced everyone actively discussing and living diversity and inclusion. The passion with which people talk about and execute diversity in Diageo London is truly infectious. I’ll say that I have definitely come a long way in the 3 years that I’ve been here. From a passive observer of diversity and inclusion in Nigeria to becoming someone who now gets actively involved in championing the causes in London. It has been one of the most fulfilling things I’ve had the opportunity of being a part of since I moved to the UK and I really look forward to doing more.”
4. What diversity and inclusion means to Uchendu.
“To me, it means giving everyone equal opportunities to determine for themselves what they wish to weigh on the scale of life, in every possible aspect, without us or anyone tilting or manipulating to scale to favour or disfavour anyone by reason of their gender, ethnicity, ability, age, sexual orientation, social class, education, experience, ways of thinking and more.”
5. Why companies/firms should care.
“Any company that cares about success, as I am sure they all do, must recognise that people are the foundation of their success. This means that they must strive to recruit, develop and retain the best and most diverse talent with a range of backgrounds, skills and capabilities. Diversity of thought and experience fuels growth and innovation and ensures that organisations reflect the needs and expectations of their target consumers. An inclusive culture is key to each individual feeling a sense of belonging, as well as being able to thrive and contribute to their fullest.”
6. What Diageo has done to promote this cause.
Diageo is committed to creating the most inclusive and diverse culture, as well as shaping market-leading policies and practices because it is both the right thing to do and helps our business to grow. It is core to our purpose of “celebrating life every day everywhere”. For example, the company makes it a priority to support its growing Business/Employee Resource Groups, from our women’s network Spirited Women, to our Asian and African heritage groups, our Race, Ethnicity and Cultural Heritage group REACH and our LGBT+ Rainbow networks. Every year, passionate employees organise an Inclusion Week comprising of celebrations, discussions, and personal storytelling on a range of important and challenging topics in our offices globally.
Championing Inclusion and Diversity is one of our six strategic business imperatives (“must do’s”) within our Performance Ambition, and leaders throughout the organisation have clear accountability for setting progressive plans and measuring their impact as part of broader business performance. Just over ten years ago Diageo’s Executive Committee was entirely male. Today, 55% of Diageo’s Board and 38% of Diageo’s Executive Committee are women. The company also offers men and women 52 weeks leave, with the first 26 weeks fully paid. This policy applies regardless of gender, sexual orientation or whether our employees become parents biologically, via surrogacy or adopt. In June 2020, Diageo announced a $20 million community fund to support social justice in America, helping black communities and businesses to recover from COVID-19. Additionally, Diageo recently announced a goal to increase representation of leaders from ethnically diverse backgrounds to 45%.
7. On how he made the transition to an in-house counsel.
“I got the opportunity to undertake a secondment in Guinness Nigeria from March to September 2011 owing to the relationship between my firm Aluko & Oyebode and Guinness Nigeria. In May 2012, the role of a Commercial Legal Manager became available in Guinness Nigeria and I was assessed and offered the job. I then officially joined Diageo Nigeria in July 2012.”
8. The influences that drove this decision.
Following the 6-month secondment, Uchendu’s experience with Diageo’s inhouse legal team had changed his perspective. “Frankly, it was difficult adjusting back to the law firm life at the end of my secondment. The culture at Diageo Nigeria was endearing. There was a demonstrated and genuine commitment to the wellbeing of employees. People treated each other with respect. I had a great work-life balance which meant that I could do other important non-work-related stuff that added to the quality of life. My contributions to the team and company were appreciated in a way that felt genuine and I got immediate feedback on areas of my strength and development opportunities which helped me to improve both as a lawyer and as a person. Pretty much everyone in the company was amazing and supportive. It felt like family.”
Such a positive experience had come at the perfect time, “You know that sense you get when you wake up in the morning, remember where you are going to spend the better part of your day and with whom, and you have a smile on your face? That was it for me. Every day felt like that for the better part of my 6 months secondment and I really needed that in my life at the time. There was also this unique feeling when you work in a multinational, especially knowing that there could be a chance you could get an international experience in another Diageo market, which turned out to be the case for me. These were some of the reasons that convinced me that Diageo was the right place to be. And of course, don’t forget the good pay!”
9. The changes he faced when moving in-house.
“The first challenge was weaning myself off of the “lawyerly” way of thinking and improving my ability to double-hat, and by that, I mean being able to think both as a lawyer and a businessman. They don’t teach you that in law school and certainly, not usually what you would expect to pick up in a law firm. In law firms, you are more likely to get used to a binary way of thinking but as an in-house counsel, you needed to be more. Therefore, I had to quickly make that crucial adjustment, think law and business all at once. I also had to work on my stakeholder relationship building and management skills. One of the most important skills a successful in-house lawyer must have is building great relationships with the people you work with, earning a place with them as a trusted commercial advisor and that means you make them to naturally seek your opinion even in matters that are non-law related. You need to be able to show them that you understand the business, you understand the things they grapple with in their day-to-day efforts to keep the business going, and that you can have business or commercial conversations with them even when there won’t be a single legal word needed in the conversations from start to finish.”
10. On what he enjoys most about in-house practise.
“The people. The relationships. The on-the-spot feedbacks and I guess you can say, seeing and knowing the result of your input to the business almost instantaneously. You can add the tremendous learning and development opportunities to the list.”
Uchendu’s story is truly inspirational and one that I have wanted to share since I first heard it. He was more than happy to share it and hopes that this might inspire future young lawyers. With diversity and inclusion being an incredibly important and relevant matter, it is encouraging to see companies embrace the idea and have leaders within organisations that champion it. I hope this article has also highlighted some of the aspects of an in-house counsel’s career, an often unexplored route for many aspiring lawyers.