At 38, Ebun Sofunde, SAN, made history as the youngest Senior Advocate of Nigeria in 1988. He is a Co-founder of the legal firm: Sofunde, Osakwe, Ogundipe & Belgore. Sofunde, 71, is a highly brilliant litigator who has made significant contributions to Nigerian Jurisprudence through his countless landmark cases. The 2016 Chamber Global Directory describes him as a “widely respected litigator.” In today’s “Lawyers & Mentors” series, Sofunde pays tribute to Chief Rotimi Williams, the colossuswhose footprints traverse Nigerian Jurisprudence:
I never set out to set a record as the youngest SAN at 38. It just happened, in May 1988. My story was given a lot of publicity in the media. To God be the glory. My advice to young lawyers is: hard work, no cutting corners, find a senior person who can put you through. There are two ways of doing it. It’s either you work in a senior lawyer’s chambers or you set up your own chambers but affiliate with a senior so that he puts you through and guides you.
My own good fortune was working with Chief Frederick Alade Rotimi Williams QC, SAN, a mentor and master from whom I learnt so much. I had worked at the Lagos State Ministry of Justice, from there to Nigeria Reinsurance Corporation where I worked for nine months as a legal adviser but I wasn’t getting the challenge that I wanted. Joining Rotimi Williams Chambers was by accident. I left Nigeria Re and was looking for a job. There was an opening that was brought to my attention by a maternal uncle of mine, Mr. B. A. Bajulai who was a close friend of the then Head of Chambers, the late Chief Bayo Kehinde, SAN, and I applied. It was when I started working there that I realized that it was the best move I had made in my career. This was a place where Chief Williams wanted us to be analytical and I am a person who wants to be analytical. Chief Williams was available to us and he was ready to teach whoever wanted to learn.
The first day I met Chief Rotimi Williams was the day I started work and was introduced to him. Here was a man you greeted and he answered you and continued working. His size also intimidated you. I didn’t feel welcome. But when I subsequently sat with him to discuss cases at our Friday meetings or as part of his team (or the only junior in his team) for a particular case and we discussed, I then got to know how nice he was. I never felt he was my boss. He was always like a father to me. I got all that impression when I got close to him. And his humour was unsurpassable. At the same time he was brilliant and hardworking. He was easygoing, but he got things done.
I am sad that Chief Rotimi Williams did not leave a memoir, not just on law itself but about all sorts of experiences he had in life and in the practice of law. He had a fertile experience that I would have loved if he had put it in writing. He was a man of many parts that many didn’t even know of. He was very witty. He would make a joke out of a real situation in litigation and it would be very relevant. He told us all sorts of stories. A book on him will be good if it is written. He was law personified. That is why they called him “Timi the law.” It didn’t matter which area of the law you were talking about: if you brought an expert on Company Law, sat him down with Chief Williams and asked them to discuss any particular area, Chief Williams would be very comfortable discussing it. If it was Aviation Law, he knew it. If you brought an expert on Marine Insurance and sat him down with Chief Williams he would excel.
To show that he really was Timi the Law, if you went to meet him and told him about a legal problem you had, he would get up, he used to sit in the library, whistling as he went to a particular shelf in the library from where he would bring out a Law Report. He would open it for you to the page where there is a relevant passage in the report of the case in question and tell you that you would find your answer there. On reading the report, you would find that the relevant passage had already been marked by him. In a lot of those cases, especially if they were Nigerian cases, he appeared in them. Sometimes he would give you an English case or a case decided by the Privy Council, but all the same he would have marked the relevant passage. Sometimes, if the case was not reported, he would call his litigation clerk and tell him: “Get me the file of so-and-so”. And when the litigation clerk brought the file, you would see the proceedings and a decision that had not been reported that answered the question you asked him. So, how was he not Timi, the law?
I learnt from him that you do not take anything for granted. You analyse. What I mean by not taking anything for granted is that perhaps everybody has been applying a particular section of the law in a particular way: not because they have given thought to it but because that is how everybody else applies it. Chief Williams taught me—especially when you need to apply it differently to succeed—to look at that law properly and analyse it. And in a lot of cases, you will find that the way a lot of lawyers have taken it for granted that that is what it means, is not really so. That is perhaps the most important thing I learnt from him. I wish I knew his legal heroes but I never asked him. I don’t know. We never discussed to that extent.
When I am presenting my case, I don’t think of Chief Rotimi Williams or ask myself what he would have done if he were to be in my shoes. He inspired me right from the inception. And I have imbibed many of the good traits I think he had. So those traits I imbibed have become part of me. So, I don’t think of him again when I am presenting my case. Definitely, he was my mentor. The way he mentored was to teach you. He was open to anybody. And that included those who were not working in his chambers. You came with your problem and he was ready to teach you, to show you the way and encourage you. That’s the way he mentored me. There were cases he would ask me to go and do, giving me the opportunity to go to court on my own: sometimes from inception and sometimes he would ask me to go with him on the first day because the following day he would not be able to attend. And I would continue.
He was a good leader in the sense that a good leader leads by allowing other people to participate.That was Chief Williams. He would allow even the most junior to contribute. He would guide you to what he believed was the correct path. He didn’t lord it over anybody. He was very, very accommodating. I attended court with him on a number of occasions, long before I became SAN. He would conduct his case, turn round before sitting down, ask me if I thought there was anything else he needed to say (Excerpt from my forthcoming book: COURTROOM AND LAW FIRM STRATEGIES—Senior Advocates Share Their Experiences).