From hotel concierge to managing partner: Solomon's justice
28 May 2013 | By Becky Waller-Davies
Solomon Wifa is the youngest-ever managing partner of O’Melveny & Myers’ London office. The story of his success has the trappings of a Hollywood blockbuster
Most young, would-be lawyers have their down-days. Days where they doubt they will make it into the profession, days when even though they tick every box going, getting a training contract seems impossible.
Solomon Wifa is an exception to that rule. The youngest-ever managing partner of the London office of international firm O’Melveny & Myers says he never doubted for a minute that he would succeed.
The thought simply did not occur to him. “There wasn’t an alternative,” he says resolutely. “I grew up in a place where you are expected to go to university, to enter a profession. I didn’t have a safety net. The thought that it wouldn’t happen just never crossed my mind.”
Wifa arrived in London from Nigera aged 17 without his parents and with no industry contacts or career knowledge to speak of.
He enrolled on a University of London external degree before deciding he needed the classroom environment. However, no University of London college would accept the external degree as a substitute for a first year at a college and Wifa was impatient. While working nights as a concierge at The Langham hotel in London’s Portland Place, he studied law at Greenwich University.
“I was actually part of the second intake for law,” he says. “So I finished my law degree there, I did two years. I came out with a 2:1, which itself was another revelation.
“I did not know originally that was what you needed to get into the law. It was when I was applying for training contracts and most of the applications were asking for a predicted 2:1 from your college that I found out.”
He asked his lecturers to predict him a 2:1 but they did not believe he would achieve the required grade. Terming this verdict “a shock”, Wifa says that he made sure to prove them wrong. “The more I knew about the process, the more determined I was to organise myself appropriately,” he states matter-of-factly. “When I knew what I had to do, I knew I would do it.”
He graduated with a 2:1 but no training contract and applied a scattergun approach to finding employment. After writing 300 applications, he was called to interview.
“I got one response from a firm in Reading,” he relates. “I didn’t know where Reading was but I went to the interview. I had come from work so was very tired as I was working nights. So I sat in front of these people and tried to convince them I was willing to move to Reading but I wasn’t very convincing. It was personal injury and I had no interest in that. I was saying all the things I thought they wanted to hear but it was just a disaster, an unmitigated disaster. I was glad they didn’t take me.”
Wifa’s situation was not looking rosy, as he himself admits. But during university his night work at the Langham, owned at that time by the Hilton Group, had thrown up an opportunity. “I spoke to somebody at The Hilton Group and asked them if I was allowed to work in the legal department there for free on my holidays,” Wifa says. “I really wanted to get the experience and I didn’t care about getting paid. So they took pity on me, paid my expenses and I worked nights at The Langham and went to the Hilton Group during the day.”
Wifa continued to work in the legal department through his holidays from Greenwich.
“I went to the office at 9am, left at 5pm, went home and refreshed and then went back to work,” he remembers. “The good thing with my concierge job was that it was four days on, three days off. I worked Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, so Fridays and Mondays were the killer because I was working for 24 hours.
“I did that for a year or two. I look back now and think ‘how did you do that?’. But if you have to, you have to. It was a paralegal position but they liked me. They used to call me in after university also, when I was trying to get a training contract.”
Wifa’s experience at the Hilton Group led to a paralegal position at Ladbrokes, working at panel firm SJ Berwin in its London office.
“It was a big construction case being dealt with by SJ Berwin but Ladbrokes hired me and sent me along,” he says. “It was very dry law but very interesting.”
“There was a room wall-to-wall with lever-arch files full of documents. It was my job to check those documents and make sure each one was paginated. This was before automated pagination.
“I spent about a year in that room. And then it came to trial and then the case settled and my beautiful work didn’t see the light of day. At that point I decided I didn’t want to be a litigator.”
Although Wifa’s carefully paginated bundles did not make the case, his hard work paid off. SJ Berwin offered him a paralegal position. Liking his work, supervisors encouraged him to apply for a training contract, which he secured.
He sat in litigation, went on a property secondment and completed two corporate seats, which he qualified into. “I have always loved the law but I love it in conjunction with business,” he says. “Abstract law was not for me. So sitting in-house at a company watching what made them tick was fascinating. And then I did two corporate seats and I knew that was what I wanted to do and qualified into it.”
He stayed at SJ Berwin as an associate for seven years before moving with two others to establish O’Melveny & Myers’ London office.
“The ability and the opportunity to build, that was what I loved,” he enthuses. “If it worked the upside was humongous, if it didn’t then the downside wasn’t too great. I looked at the people I was with and thought we could do it.”
The founders set about searching for clients and new markets. “We went for under-served markets and clients because we knew we couldn’t compete with established City firms,” he says. “We went left of field and now left of field is cool. We were looking at Africa, Turkey and sovereign wealth funds before anybody else.”
Youth on his side
Just three years after becoming a partner, Wifa was elected the youngest-ever managing partner of O’Melveny & Myers’ London office at 37 years’ old.
He professes to have been shocked when the senior partner asked him to take on the role, but says the opportunity to learn was “too good to turn down”.
As he looks about him, does Wifa think that people from a non-Russell Group background, lacking industry contracts and polish, have more of a chance than 20 years ago, when he entered the profession? His answer is not the ringing endorsement of law firm diversity that might be expected. “There are more examples of people from not typical backgrounds who have achieved and are achieving,” he acknowledges. “But the industry is progressing towards a very rigid recruitment structure where alternative careers are not seen as an opportunity to bring in diversity.
“Firms don’t look at diverse people. I am not just talking colour or gender, but having a different career, bringing something else. If you are not from the Russell Group universities, if you do not have a 2:1 or 1st, everything else falls away. In that respect it is more difficult than it was 20 years ago. It’s sad.”
Wifa mentions diversity mentoring and self-belief as being key to increasing firm diversity, but also believes that clients need to start holding firms to account.
“Firms need to start to drink their own Kool-Aid,” he deadpans. “Everyone has that policy document saying they welcome diversity but I don’t see that it is a priority. If we want to accelerate it, it needs to be.”
Solomon Wifa, O’Melveny & Myers
1991-1992: University of London LLB external degree programme
1992-1994: University of Greenwich LLB law degree programme
1994-1995: College of Law Guildford (part-time) and paralegal at SJ Berwin
1995-1997: SJ Berwin Trainee
1997-2004: SJ Berwin Associate
2004-2006: O’Melveny & Myers Associate
2006-present: O’Melveny & Myers Partner
partner of O’Melveny & Myers’ London office