Black History Month: “I went to the US to pursue my legal dream”

Claudius Sokenu left London for New York in pursuit of a legal career.  After spells in government and private practice he is now in house as deputy general counsel at ‎Andeavor. He talks about the path he took, and the differences between the UK and the US when it comes to diversity in law.

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Tell us about your background and what sparked your interest in the legal profession

I was born in London and raised in London and Lagos, Nigeria. I went to boarding school in Lagos, which was an interesting and enlightening experience, both academically and culturally. I subsequently returned to London to continue my education with a strong focus on becoming a barrister as I was fascinated by the law and courtroom drama. I quite fancied myself as strong debater and was the Chief Speaker of my high school’s debate team, which morphed into my interest in becoming a trial lawyer. I also was the editor-in-chief of my high school’s newspaper. Both those interests led me to the law. 

What made you make the move to the US?

In my second year at university in London, I applied for a program offering ethnic minority law students the chance to spend the summer working in New York and I did not make the list. So, I wrote directly to one of the judges taking part in the program and asked if I could take part in the program anyway and she said yes. By the end of that summer, I’d decided that I wanted to practice law in New York. So, when the time came to choose between Bar School and the solicitors’ finals, I chose neither. Instead, I did an LL.M in Corporate and Commercial Law at the London School of Economics and King’s College London.

People thought I was crazy when I started studying for the New York bar instead of going to Bar School, but I’d looked around and I couldn’t see anyone that looked like me in London who’d achieved what I wanted to achieve by going down the traditional paths. Wall Street had always fascinated me, and globalisation was gathering pace. I wanted to be part of that excitement.

So, once I finished my studies in London, I moved to the US and studied for an LL.M in Securities and Financial Regulation at Georgetown University Law School in Washington, DC.

How did your career develop there?

After graduation from Georgetown Law School, I joined the United States Securities and Exchange Commission, Division of Enforcement, on the Honors Program, first as a Staff Attorney and later as Senior Counsel, where I was responsible for handling a broad range of the SEC’s domestic and international enforcement matters, including investigations involving accounting fraud, insider trading, initial public offerings, illicit payments under the FCPA, investment companies and investment advisers, market manipulation, and broker-dealer misconduct. I was also a member of the Enforcement Division’s FCPA Working Group, which is now known as the FCPA Unit and the Financial Fraud Task Force.

After working in the SEC’s Enforcement Division, I moved to private practice at Mayer Brown as an associate. I was promoted to partner at the end of my seventh year as an associate, which by New York standards was quite early. I then went on to be an equity partner at Arnold and Porter and at Shearman & Sterling.

Earlier this year, I made the transition from private practice to in-house at Andeavor, a Fortune 100 energy company, as Deputy General Counsel, Global Head of Litigation, Global Head of Compliance, and Global Head of Legal-Supply Chain, where I oversee all of Andeavor’s litigation, internal and government investigations, regulatory compliance, and the ethics and compliance program.

Have you ever felt that your race has hindered you in any way? If so, how and how has this experience challenged you?

Yes, there have been occasions when racial issues have presented challenges. From getting the right work assignment to getting invited to the right meetings, and being mentored by the right partners at a firm are all challenges that are often made much more difficult where racial and gender minorities are concerned.

As a young partner, I was engaged by a new client to manage a highly visible bet-the-farm litigation. Early in the engagement, a powerful senior partner with whom I had a decent working relationship visited me and said that I needed to put an older partner on the team because the board of directors of the client may not be comfortable working with a young black partner. After days of deliberation, I visited this senior partner in his office and politely explained to him how his comments came across. Even though he never actually apologized or acknowledged that his comments were potentially racially insensitive, I noticed a positive change in the way he interacted with me and other minority lawyers at the firm. In that circumstance, engaging and educating elicited a positive reaction.

On another occasion, I was not invited to meet a client with a matter before the SEC’s Division of Enforcement in Washington DC, where I had been a senior official, even though none of the other attendees had SEC Enforcement experience. After the meeting started, the relationship partner came by my office and asked me to join the meeting because the client had an African-American on their team. I put on my tie and joined the meeting. It was clear to me and the client why I was hastily summoned to the meeting. In another instance, a partner from another office preparing for trial in New York called with an unexpected last-minute request that I join the trial team in a case that I had not worked on. The reason? The trial judge is black.

I came to practice law in the United States from England because I thought the opportunities were greater for a minority lawyer and so it has proven. But it would be inaccurate to say that these kinds of things haven’t happened to me and other minority lawyers. The key is in how one reacts to and manages these issues when they come up

What was the best career decision you ever made?

There are two best career decisions. Coming to practice law in the United States and joining the SEC’s Enforcement Division.

You were Shearman & Sterling’s first black male partner: this is not to imply that Shearman weren’t supportive but what advice would you have for those who feel alone in a firm or an organization

Shearman & Sterling is a great firm and one where I thrived and felt supported. I joined the firm because I was convinced that the firm had the mindset to address the obvious gaps in its partnership ranks. I felt that my presence at the firm would help the firm’s efforts in this regard.

My advice would be to find a firm (or organisation) that not only pays lip service to the issue of diversity, but genuinely embraces diversity as a core value. While that may be difficult to discern during the interview process, it is worth asking to meet with some of the diverse lawyers in the firm or organisation to attempt to discern the culture of the firm and its approach to diversity issues.

The one thing I would suggest to people not to do is simply look at the numbers. The numbers only tell part of the story. Dig deeper.

Do you think the US legal profession is ahead of the UK when it comes to diversity awareness? What can lawyers from the two nations learn from each other in this regard

Yes, I think the US legal profession has made much more significant advances in addressing the issue of diversity.

The UK has a two-layer problem. First, and perhaps more perverse, are the class issues. Second, and interrelated, are the racial issues. The problem is not helped by the size of the legal market in the UK. There are essentially five magic circle firms compared to many AmLaw 100 law firms where the level of sophistication of work is comparable. What the UK can learn from their US counterparts is the many programs and efforts that have been put in place by these firms to address diversity issues. More importantly, there is a sensitivity to how the issue of diversity is addressed that the UK legal profession must embrace.

Outside your own firm, name an attorney in your field who has impressed you and explain why

One of the gratifying things about my work is that one is constantly working with teams of lawyers from other firms. In that regard, I have had the privilege of watching some of the best lawyers in the country up close and personal. For me, Reid Figel at Kellogg Huber Hanson Todd Evans & Figel has impressed me immensely. I first met Reid when I was a first-year lawyer at the SEC when he was representing Baker Hughes Inc. in one of the first major FCPA cases that I prosecuted. He had a masterful command of the law, but far more importantly he navigated the SEC and Justice Department processes better than most lawyers. A consummate advocate with a personal touch.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that beyond the technical practice of law, I have always believed that the law is a noble profession. I must have gotten that from my English upbringing. In that respect, Ted Wells at Paul Weiss and Michele Coleman Mayes, the general counsel of the New York Public Library, have both been great mentors and inspirations to me and numerous others who look to both of them not only for their legal expertise and judgment, but also the extraordinary leadership and guidance they provide for the next generation.

What are your future ambitions for your own career?

I aspire to be the general counsel and chef compliance officer of a Fortune 100 company.

You now mentor younger lawyers: what advice do you give them?

I would highlight four guiding principles. First, do what you love. All too often, young lawyers have no interest in practicing law and are just marking time. Spending 12 or more hours every day doing something that you are not happy doing can be rather draining and demoralising.

Second, assuming a sustained interest in practicing law, young associates should hone their legal skills. Through mentors and other firm resources, determine where you need to be in terms of skills: If, like me, you are a litigator and you are not writing briefs, taking depositions and standing up in court as a mid- to senior-level associate, you may be falling behind your peers.

Third, regardless of colour, seek out mentors who will invest in you at your firm and elsewhere. Success is far less likely without mentors who are invested in your success.

Fourth, get involved in firm matters and be a visible firm citizen.

What do you do to unwind?

Whenever I can, I make a habit of watching my favourite team, Tottenham Hotspur. I also enjoy spending time with my family and friends at Mill Hill Boys Club, the vast majority of whom live in London.

The rest of The Lawyer’s Black History Month series can be found here.