An interview with Chief Olufolake Solanke SAN
Chief Solanke SAN was awarded the 2012 IBA Outstanding International Woman Lawyer Award at the IBA 5th World Women Lawyers’ Conference in London in recognition of her professional excellence and contribution to the advancement of women within the legal profession. Speaking at the conference, she gave Who’s Who Legal an insight into the obstacles and successes in her career.
Chief Solanke SAN became the first female lawyer appointed as senior advocate of Nigeria in March 1981. Educated at the Honourable Society of Gray’s Inn in London, Chief Solanke SAN has earned an internationally respected reputation acting as counsel in numerous seminal trials over a 40-year legal career.
Beyond the law, she was appointed the first female commissioner of the Western State of Nigeria and chairperson of the Western Government Broadcasting Corporation Television and Radio Network Service in 1972. She was rewarded for her pioneering achievements in July 1992 when she was elected the 42nd president of Zonta International, a global organisation of executives in business working for the advancement of the status of women.
With a degree in mathematics, teaching was your first profession: you taught Latin and maths in England before beginning your legal training in 1960 at Gray’s Inn. The law does not seem an obvious choice for a second career. What made you decide to pursue law? What was it that really appealed to you?
First of all, Latin and pure mathematics were two of the subjects which I was offered for my BA degree, and I taught Latin and mathematics in public schools in England for three years. Two different public schools: Pipers Corner School in Buckinghamshire and St Monica’s School in Essex, and then in Ibadan at the Yejide Girls' Grammar School. That makes five years in the teaching profession.
I decided to read law as a consequence of an experience in which I had to give evidence as prosecution witness number two at the Old Bailey in a proceeding, and the QC who represented the prosecution was Victor Durand QC. At the end of the proceedings I asked him why he didn’t ask certain, specific questions, and he told me he could not because of the rules against hearsay evidence. That left a question mark in my head as to why he couldn’t do that. So it was an attempt to resolve those questions that bought me to my second career. Of course, I did learn more about the law than just hearsay evidence! So, that was the reason. I decided that if I did not like the practice of law I would go back to teaching. But I then got stuck in the law, and I have practised it since 1963. I completed my law studies in 1962, after 22 months, but I had to wait a year because I had to go back to Nigeria, as I'd left a one-year old child. I was desperate to get back to her, so they allowed me to go home. But I was called to the Bar in absentia at Grays’ Inn in May 1963, and I was allowed to skip some of the dinners because I was away. So that was how I landed my second career, which I love.
How did your experiences as a teacher impact your decision to be a lawyer? What skills could you transfer?
When you are a teacher, you are performing before an audience – most are younger than you are, but still, it is an audience in a private forum. But if you are going to perform before an audience you must be very sure of your script and what you are going to impart. So two things: firstly, you must be very well prepared for your appearance in court; and secondly, although you are performing before an audience, it is a public audience, which puts a higher challenge on you to be prepared and know exactly what you are talking about.
Can you describe for our readers your experience at Gray’s Inn in 1960? Was it a good one?
My experience was a very pleasant one. My husband was to return to England to specialise in surgery – he was a doctor – so I accompanied him and we left our one-year-old daughter at home in Nigeria. I took my BA degree certificate and letters from two practising lawyers in Nigeria. One was my sponsor – he is still alive, he is now 97 years old: my brother-in-law, the Honourable Justice MA Odesanya – and another gentleman. They gave me two letters of reference and I went to see the under-treasurer at the Inn. I remember him very well, Mr O Terry. I presented my two certificates to him, and before I rose from the chair he had already admitted me as a student of Gray’s Inn. I pursued that, and ate some of the dinners – which were very interesting! Apart from the food, I had the opportunity to meet judges and senior members of the bar. It was a kind of orientation and opening of the mind to what the wonderful profession can really do for you and what you can become. I remember also, very well, that they would serve wine with dinner and that particular wine just did not agree with me. It would give me headaches, so the other Nigerian students were always very ready to take my share of the wine! I had a very good time.
It is clear that your husband was a supporting and encouraging force in your career. Who else would you say has been your mentor throughout the years? What relatives, friends, colleagues, or adversaries have shaped you both as a person and as a lawyer, and how?
I must start with my father. He was not here when I became a lawyer: he died in April 1963 and I became a lawyer in May. I was in England at the time. I took everything from my father and my family. There is nothing here that outsiders have given me, except what I have acknowledged from my former pupil master Justice Odesanya and former chambers head Chief Williams. But also my exposure as a teacher, and my education, had an impact. If you think of 1955: as a non-white teacher in a public school, as a resident mistress in this country, it was not easy. It was not easy at all. But because of the qualities that I took from my father, I was able to take care of the situation and adapt to the culture. I assimilated the best in Western culture and the best in Nigerian culture. That is what we should all do. Once you are prepared, there is nothing a friend or colleague or adversary can teach you. You can meet friend or foe in the courtroom. When you have a new case, you are very interested in who the opposing counsel is. There was a time when I was handling a local government case in Ibadan, and Chief Williams sent one of his sons, a junior, from Lagos to deal with the case. When he retuned home and told the Chief I was acting for the other party, at the next adjournment the Chief himself appeared! He didn’t want to take the risk of letting his son face me alone in court. There is a lot of respect when you do your work well and are prepared.
In 1981, you were appointed the first female senior advocate of Nigeria (SAN). How did that come about, and what reaction did it create among your peers at the time?
When I left Chief Williams’ chambers, I left in a very cordial atmosphere. That's what I always advocate to all young lawyers – when you are leaving chambers, don’t leave with acrimony, try and leave with a good rapport with your senior, because the profession is very cohesive. You never know when you are going to meet again. I used to visit Chief Williams at his home in Lagos, which was also his chambers. One day, I stopped by to see him and he suggested I apply to be a senior advocate – I had never even thought about it! But that triggered everything. I started to concentrate on the criteria which I had to fulfil to become a SAN. On the day I completed a case in the Supreme Court I filled my forms and submitted them – because only then had I acquired the required number of cases needed to be considered.
One day I was in chambers, and Dr Graham-Douglas, a member of the SAN committee, phoned me and told me I had been selected as a SAN, which was to be conferred on me by the Supreme Court. Well, today the euphoria is still there when I remember! It is a source of tremendous joy and happiness and gratitude to God, because it was not easy. I left chambers and went home very excited to tell my husband; he was very happy for me. My husband was a gentleman who believed in the equality of the genders and that women should be given every opportunity to fulfil their dreams and exploit their talents to the maximum. I was very fortunate to have that kind of partnership with somebody who had that kind of orientation. And then the media just went gaga! Many people did not even know that the status existed. It was because of the deluge of newspaper articles and interviews that people became aware of the prestigious award. Of course, it comes with all the gestures of deference and respect in court – being called to present my case first, etc. It is wonderful. But there is a burden of leadership – you are a leader at the bar and must be seen to perform that leadership role successfully. At first I was overwhelmed by the realisation of the leadership impact that I was expected to extend to others, but I do not believe in mediocrity. Nobody can reach utopia, but you can always aspire to it by keeping your standard aloft and not compromising for the mediocre. So I encouraged young lawyers to be ready to work hard. Both in the chambers of my brother-in-law and in the chambers of Chief Williams, one thing I took away was that you cannot succeed in the legal profession without industry and hard work – sheer grinding hard work. Some of the young people today are impatient, so they are not ready to give it what it takes.
I became a SAN in 1981, which is 31 years ago. Now we have about 10 or 12 female SANs. Many go into corporations and business. The leadership position is very dear to my heart, and I am grateful to God. When I celebrated my 80th birthday in March, the statements and the encomium I received really touched my heart. I cannot convey the fullness and the happiness I felt at the acknowledgement – from people in and outside of the profession – that I have been a good role model and mentor and encouraged women to be good lawyers and good decent people. Appearance is another thing that I know I have influenced – they know me and my appearance! I will never compromise my appearance. I always encourage lawyers in Nigeria, stick to your white and black! It makes you stand out. If you say "come in dark colours" some people come in green, which is not a dark colour. They know me as the lady in black and white! When you enter a room, before you open your mouth, it doesn’t matter how brilliant you are – people have upgraded you or downgraded you just on your appearance. We have a statement in my language, Yoruba: “It is as you appear that people will meet you.” My husband would tell me that he tried to teach young doctors to dress well, and this fellow came to him in shabby clothes and slippers and they thought he was a porter; he got upset because he was in fact a trainee doctor. Well, his appearance called for that conclusion. Appearance is very important.
Could you summarise how a SAN’s practice or role differs to that of a lawyer’s? What makes a good SAN?
Well, I have spoken about the privileges already. You have to have a junior with you in court – it is mandatory, but you need one anyway, and you use that to encourage the junior so they can see how best to practise law. This is part of the mentoring and leadership role that I have expanded on. So that is the key difference. Also, [you have] to represent the best in the profession. You are a leader so you must make a good example for those behind you.
What do you find most fulfilling about being an advocate?
The challenge of researching, and when you have really hit on that particular authority – that gives you complete satisfaction, it is very fulfilling. Secondly, when you appear before a judge and you know that judge has read the file, the processes and the law, so you can exchange meaningful court banter with the judge – that is very fulfilling. Thirdly, the joy of winning. I do not boast, but I just did not lose cases. 90 per cent I won. It was because of the depth of research I conducted. I did a case for the First Bank of Nigeria: the manager had written a letter of apology to the customer about a dishonoured cheque and the client sued for defamation. An apology implies an admission of guilt but when I worked on it, I was able to establish that the manager wrote a letter in error; it did not amount to an admission in law. He had his own opinion that he did wrong, but in law, on the circumstances of the case, he was not wrong: he misunderstood his position. I won the case for the First Bank of Nigeria, and they could not believe it. Well, after that I got more cases from them. That was a good one!
What were the more challenging aspects of the job?
One obstacle which comes readily to mind is that sometimes, when I receive processes from other lawyers, my greatest headache is to understand what that lawyer is saying. That is why lawyers must be coherent; but some of them are not. So I have to rack my brain to know what they are talking about before I can even respond. That’s one of the challenges. Apart from the hard work, time consumption and the adjournments are a pain: all these lawyers who are not ready to proceed, they are a pain and should be reduced. There are new rules that are trying to regulate the number of times you can seek adjournments for amendments, etc; it was getting too much.
You have taught and lectured on the law and are a prolific essayist. In terms of the future, what advice would you give to students who wish to enter the bar and perhaps aspire to senior advocacy later in their lives?
First of all, less texting, more reading! If you do not read, you cannot speak well and you cannot write well. You acquire language skills by reading. I don’t do texting, because I do not understand it! So I do not encourage it. Candidates for examinations sometimes use text language in the exams, and they fail. The majority fail English and mathematics, because they don’t read. Anybody who wants to become a lawyer must be prepared to lead a life of reading and learning. It is no good calling yourself "learned friend" when you do not know the law. You must be learned, and demonstrate that you’re learned by reading and researching your cases.
Also they have to learn to speak well. English is the official language of Nigeria and the official language of the Bar in Nigeria. You have to have good spoken and written English. That is not coming along at the moment, because the teachers in schools, they cannot speak good English. I wrote to the director of the law school in Abuja advising him to establish a remedial English course and incorporate it into the curriculum because the students they are producing cannot speak well in court. When I am court it is very evident. Knowledge comes from reading.
As I have said, appearance is important. I always advised my students that they should try and get their whites white. I talked to them like a mother; now, more like a grandmother! I am still practising though, I haven’t retired. No lawyer retires! Timekeeping is also very important: be prompt and arrive when you are supposed to arrive. When I was in full practice, I would leave home at 6am, pick up my legal executive and be off to court in another town, ready and prepared.
Why did you never go into the Judiciary?
Well, I had a spell in 1986 on a tribunal which was set up to review the sentences of politicians, so it was a judicial position. I showed an indication to go to the Supreme Court in Nigeria, but eventually the president of the Court of Appeal invited me to see him and offered me a position on the Court of Appeal in 1987, but at that time I had become well [established] in my activities in Zonta International; I had become very involved in that. I thought about it a lot, and I told the president that I didn’t have the divine push to go to the bench. I just didn’t feel that was where God wanted me to go. He said he could not interfere with that reasoning, and left it at that. Five years later, in 1992, I was elected as the international president of Zonta International in Hong Kong. The organisation was established in 1919 and had never had a non-white president, and I had struggled for six years to become president.
By and large, and with the reputation, or rather non-reputation, of the judiciary now, I do not have any regrets about not going to the bench. I already had experience of doing appellate work, so God led me to the right choice. If had gone to the bench I wouldn’t have won the IBA Award for Outstanding International Woman Lawyer of the Year, or become the President of Zonta. And wouldn’t be where I am now.
Presumably if you were not practising law you would still be teaching right now?
I guess so, but I don’t know. I cannot stand the level of discipline in schools now, where children beat up teachers and parents molest teachers! We’ve had one or two incidents in Nigeria but it is not as common as here and in America. When I was teaching in Buckinghamshire and Essex, at the beginning of the lesson a girl would come to the staffroom and take your bag and books to the classroom, and there was another girl in the classroom to who would open the door for you. I would come in and the students would all be standing to receive me. Now, times have changed. I cannot stand schools without uniforms either. I have established a prize for one of the secondary schools in Ibadan, and they give it out to three girls: for mathematics, English and good conduct. They are trying to bring back old discipline, good manners. But I cannot exist in an atmosphere without discipline.
When you first asked the question, my love for teaching reacted spontaneously; now I am thinking about what is happening now and I am not sure that I would have remained in teaching. Right now I am comfortable in the company of teachers, lawyers and members of Zonta International. I have very good memories of my years in teaching, and of my students.
You’ve achieved so much, advocated for many people and mentored so many. What else is there left for you to achieve?
What I want to do is continue what I have been doing all my years – to advise, mentor and be ready to help. During the service of thanksgiving for my 80th birthday in March, the Archbishop gave a wonderful message. He extolled my virtues and he said to me that although I have biological children, I have many children in Nigeria and abroad who look up to me and I am going to have many more to mentor and advise. He conveyed the acknowledgment of what I am trying to do and the challenge to continue to mentor. That is the Archbishop’s message and I take it as divine. Life is not a bed of roses; there have been many traumatic experiences, but one must always try to rise above it and not get submerged.
An alternative version of the interview exploring Chief Solanke’s views on the Nigerian legal system has been published in Who’s Who Legal: Nigeria 2012.
Chief Solanke has published two books, Reaching for the Stars (2007)and A Compendium of Selected Lectures and Papers (2012). Both are available from BookBuilders Editions Africa firstname.lastname@example.org