By Waheed Ojo
The story of Yusuf Asamu Olalere is the one that can be likened to that of a flower blossoming amidst thorns. As an undergraduate, he was faced with financial difficulty and some other challenges. In spite of this, he graduated top of his faculty at the University of Ibadan and also at the Nigerian law school with outstanding awards. In this exclusive interview with ‘Waheed Ojo, he explains how the journey began, his study pattern, and how he overcame the challenges on his way. He also gave insights into the digital realities of the legal profession in Nigeria and what needs to be improved. Lastly, he gave words of advice to students who are also aiming to have excellent results.
Can you briefly tell us about your academic background?
For my academic background, I will start from my primary school education, I had it in Mat wisdom nursery and primary school in Badagry, Lagos state and I had my secondary school education at Ajah grammar school Badagry too in Lagos state. And because I actually wanted to study sharia law (Islamic law) in Nigeria and I couldn’t make Islamic study in my WAEC SSCE exam so I enrolled for WAEC GCE and I wrote that at Ikolaba grammar school in Ibadan, Oyo state. For my tertiary institution education, as you know, I attended the university of Ibadan. I initially came in as a student in the department of history since I couldn’t meet up with the cut-off mark for the law. Then, I was two marks short of meeting the cut-off mark for law so, I got admitted into the department of history. After my first year, I had a very good result and I crossed from the department of history to the faculty of law, but I did that because, of course, the law has always been my dream course and I actually got a good grade and I topped my class in the department of history before I crossed of the fact that I had already made up my mind that I was going to be excellent in everything I do. Before I entered the University of Ibadan, I was just an average student. So, from there to the faculty of law, and eventually in the faculty of law, I graduated with a first-class but not just a first-class but with four awards; the first is the second overall best student with an outstanding CGPA of 6.4/7.0 and I also got the award as the overall best male student from the faculty of law and overall best student in the department of public law which is one the departments in the faculty of law, University of Ibadan and I also got the Fola Solanke SAN prize for the best student in constitutional law. So, I will say that is my academic background before getting to Nigerian law school.
Would you say you are in your dream profession?
Yes, the law has always been my dream profession right from childhood. I had a late aunt in the person of Jejelola Ogunbona (May her soul rest in peace), who was a chief magistrate in the Oyo state judiciary. So, when we were kids then, she was a practicing lawyer, so in a way, indirectly, I was influenced by her. Right from childhood, I have always wanted to be a lawyer
Have you always been an ‘A’ student?
I have always been an ‘A’ student. In my primary school, I was an ‘A’ student and always at the top of my class but in my secondary school I was not really part of the first five but I also did fine because of the nature of my secondary school. I mean, it wasn’t that so well like a public school, and of course, we know how public schools are in Nigeria. At that point, I was a little bit average. But when I got to the university, everything, from the department of history over to the faculty of law, I have always been an ‘A’ student
Did you set out to become the best or first-class graduate at the Nigeria Law school?
Well! I was looking forward to being in the best graduating student. I was always reading stories of the best graduating students. So, I have always tried to see myself in that light that okay, I will also like to be like these guys, like have a number of awards. And there was also this thing I did then, that whenever I check the list of awards and the overall best student, the trend was that for being overall, they would still have certain prizes in certain courses so I was like okay, was it possible for me to go beyond that by ensuring that I have prizes touching on each of the five courses in law school. So, that sort of influenced my decision when I was in Nigerian law school to ensure that I ticked all the boxes and I was always working to be outstanding in everything I do: write well, listen attentively, participate in other activities that are expected of an ‘A’ student. So, I think those were the things that paid off with the grace of God.
How did you feel when you were announced as the best graduating student?
It was a very great one and I would say a dream come true. I didn’t believe it at first because I heard of it when I came for my screening in Abuja on Thursday, last week. I still didn’t believe it not until we had our call to the bar ceremony yesterday and I saw my name there. So, I was like wow! So, God can be very awesome? It was a dream come true and I felt really great not just for myself but also for my mum whom I really set out to make proud. She did not believe too at first when she heard. But, it was a very awesome experience
How would you have felt if you had not graduated as the best or first-class student?
If I had not graduated as the best student it could be painful, at some point, I could feel kind of bad because, of course, I am human because, of course, blood flows in my vein. But I would still feel fulfilled if I had made a first-class. So, for if I had not made a first-class, I would have felt bad. Probably worse than missing out on being the best graduating student but definitely I would move on, to see what opportunities lie ahead or probably some mistakes than needs to be corrected. Because, of course, for me, whenever I miss out on something I look inwards to see okay, internally, what are the things that I had not done and also what are the factors that could have affected me. After making all these reviews, if I found out that I had done well, I am okay; that’s what the grace of God wants. To support this, I will refer to where I was first posted to for my NYSC. I was posted to Delta state and having graduated top of my class, people felt that what would I be doing in Delta state? but I took it! Although, some of my friends got Abuja and Lagos. I took it in good faith that okay, I would like to see the opportunities that would abound, what are the things I can make out of it. Although the human part of me, at first, would make me feel bad, that Olalere, you could have done it better but I know that I would move on because life moves on.
What were the challenges you encountered as an undergraduate?
I encountered a number of challenges but with the grace of God and the help of my mum, I was able to overcome those challenges. My first, which is central of all is the challenge of money, finance, and it was because my parents ran into some crises and at some point, I had to shuffle between classes and taking extra-mural classes for students in secondary schools. For my 200 and 300 levels I had to teach in a private school and at the same time go into class so as just to make money to complement whatever I got from home or if nothing was coming from the home. I had challenges with getting my Law textbooks which are quite expensive, to feed, maintain, and everything. But I was able to overcome them. And, at some point, as the law could be emotionally draining, I could feel tired about wanting to make a first-class but my mum Is always a call away. Although she is not learned in the law, I always call her to say hello ma, this is what has been happening to me, I am scared of this course or I feel unprepared, especially during bar finals when I was in Nigerian Law school. But I had a good support system to really overcome those challenges. My roommate, Oladokun Usman, and some other colleagues were very supportive in law school too. Whenever I was tired, there were times I would cry and feel terrible because of even money too but God just placed these people strategically, such that anytime those problems came, I would always overcome them.
Students have many patterns of study, what pattern would you say worked best for you?
I can’t really point out a particular pattern. For me, I realized at Nigerian law school that in as much as consistency is paramount, you should always be able to adapt. Consistency requires that when I was in university, I would read during the day, rest in the evening, and then read at night too. So, I read during the day and at night. When I got to NLS, I observed that the circumstances differed and at some point, I was this kind of person that could only read during the day and at some point, I was this kind of person that would always look forward to reading at night. So, I was trying to be consistent with reading but adapting to different circumstances. That is my study pattern. Every study pattern I picked, I was consistent, I had to keep on reading but I was also adapting to different circumstances. Whenever it was tough, I would go for this, whenever I was tired, I had a plan of study that I would fall back on and I think it worked best for me because at the end of the day, despite the very bulky and robust curriculum of the Nigerian law school, I was able to revise everything very well before my exams.
Were you involved in extracurricular activities as an undergraduate?
Yes, I engaged in extracurricular activities. It geared towards what would make me better in my legal education. For instance, I would say that when I was in the faculty, I participated in my moot and mock trials. People in my faculty know that I was a very good mooter which earned me the position of the Attorney General of the faculty of law, University of Ibadan. And apart from that, I hang out with friends. I like hanging out with friends to have useful conversations. I am also an athlete and as an undergraduate, I participated in inter-chamber and inter-level sports competitions. Apart from that, I also write, do legal research and articles. I also ensure that before Leaving the University of Ibadan, I debated and participated in literary and debating activities for my hall, Independence Hall.
In terms of professional ethics and skills, what would you consider the major things that need to be improved in law practice, most especially in this digital age?
These extra-curricular activities have helped me in the sense that, just like I said that I have chosen these activities strategically on how they are going to help me in my legal education. For moot and mock, I have drafted court processes and got to be corrected in several instances and that helped me on how to attempt scenario-based questions. And of course, literary and debating has also helped in public speaking, how to communicate ideas, and innovative thinking. Apart from that, of course, for the sport has helped me to balance my body and soul. They have helped me a lot. Right from the moment I was making my choices I have always known that these activities are going to have a bearing on my academics and my professional goals. For instance, in law school, I was the team lead for my moot and mock trial, which was part of the Nigerian law school plan. Intentionally, I accepted to be in that position because I know that through the process, I would learn and use the opportunity to revise all that I have read. So, it was no surprise that when I got to the examination hall for bar finals, some questions came out and they were questions I attempted on the basis of the fact that they were questions I have encountered with judges from the moot trials.
What would you consider the major things that need to be improved in law practice in terms of professional ethics and skills, most especially in this digital age?
I think the first thing is this issue of the court record. By virtue of moot trials and visit court attachment, I have observed that judicial officers always have to toggle between writing and looking at the demeanor of the person talking to them. It would have been a different thing if we move towards other jurisdictions where they have other ways of writing while advocating. And, of course, filing of court processes, we could have electronic filing so that it could be served electronically.
In what ways would you say that COVID-19 has altered the tradition of law practice?
Covid-19 has altered the tradition of legal practice. Before now, the conventional legal practice was that you go to court and file your processes in person. But we now have an electronic filing of cases and remote hearing of cases. Cases are now being heard on digital platforms. Covid-19 has brought in these innovations.
What do you see as the major trends in the legal profession?
By trend, I would say that the major trend in the legal profession now is that most firms are now going digital. So, you see law firms during COVID-19 trying to apply the lessons they have learned and now trying to have a wall-less law office.
What were the most memorable moments you had in schools?
My most memorable moments in school were the times my results were released and I found that I did well. Apart from that, another memorable moment I had at the University of Ibadan was the times I hang out with friends because I am this kind of person that loves being around people, having useful conversations an all. But in the Nigerian Law School(laughs), they were moments I had with my roommate. We had quite a number of instances, laughing and crying together when everything was so intense. Even having arguments over the best little things because we were so tense and everybody was just finding a way to vent out. We had a very good moment because with him being around in my room, I was able to do a lot of things so, I didn’t get stressed down too much. And even if I did get stressed, my roommate was always there to console me and I also do the same. Those were the moments I cherished most in law school.
Now that you have graduated, what’s next?
The next thing for me is to serve. I am currently serving in a very good firm in Lagos.
What would be your advice to students who like to have excellent results like yours?
In my advice to students that would like to have an excellent result; I would say that it’s best you set the goal and after that you outline plans, strategize and ask relevant questions such as what are the things I need to do to actualize these goals? And after that, you work on it with strict adherence and adaptability. By strict adherence, I mean, no matter what comes your way, you should know how to convert distractions to motivating factors and something positive by applying discipline and consistency so as not to settle for less. And lastly, adaptability: learn to adapt to different circumstances differently and still bringing the best out of those circumstances no matter how messy they may be.