An Adventure in FINTECH: Lessons From My Experience as a Pioneer In-house Lawyer

“We generate fears while we sit, we overcome them by action”

Dr. Henry C. Link

Introduction

I had mixed feelings when faced with the offer of in-house legal counsel in an emerging Nigerian Financial Technology (FINTECH) Company. I was both thrilled and afraid at the same time. I was thrilled at the prospect of building a department from the ground up, while simultaneously battling with fear of the looming uncertainties. I had thoughts racing through my mind, like “you must be crazy?”, “what makes you qualified to take this step?”, “who do you think you are?” and even more importantly “what if you fail?”

The interesting thing is that my concerns were valid. Managing the legal department of any organization no matter the size is no small task, and so feeling ill-equipped for the task could be expected. While these feelings were valid, the question for me became, “what am I going to do about them?” I understood there was no other way out. This was like my own proverbial Goliath and I decided that it was going to have to fall. Once I made the decision to face the challenge, I knew the next step was to make a commitment to self-development because I knew this was the only way I could get equipped to fight the self-doubt I faced. I decided to focus and grow through the process.

I desire to share the lessons I learned on my journey, to help anyone who desires to take a step in-house. You should bear in mind that the lessons shared are based on my experience in an emerging organization; some of the tips may not apply to a larger or more established organization.

My Lessons

1. Understand the industry

The FINTECH space in Nigeria is evolving and currently, there is no uniform regulation that covers all the operations of FINTECH. Different laws guide the myriad of activities that organisations in the FINTECH space are involved in, including deposit mobilization, lending, payments and technology development. To function effectively in the space, it is very necessary to first of all understand the industry landscape. In order to achieve this, I did the following:

a. Read an eBook developed by Dr. Segun Adeyemi titled, A guide to Payments and FINTECH Landscape;

b. Created alerts on google for news relating to FINTECH in Nigeria which led me to follow updates via Nairametrics and also to subscribe for Decode FINTECH, a weekly email newsletter shared by Paystack; and

c. Attended webinars and studied content shared by the FINTECH Association of Nigeria.

2. Identify the rules applicable to the business your company is involved in There are different regulations that guide the operational activities in the FINTECH industry in Nigeria mostly developed by the Central Bank of Nigeria and in some instances the Securities and Exchange Commission. There was a 2-day Masterclass organized by the Innovation Law Club Africa last year on FinTech, Privacy and Data Protection. One of the presentations by Naomi Amobi was very useful to me and it helped me to understand the need to separate transactions. For example, consider a person who wants to deploy a solution that would enable customers to save, have a wallet and use a card to pay for products and services on another website. The three functionalities are governed by different rules and it is necessary for the lawyer to be aware of them. For insights on the technology space in Nigeria, you can follow the Innovation Law Club Africa on LinkedIn and Twitter.

3. Develop your compliance monitoring capacity

This could be done in 2 ways. The first is to anticipate regulation by joining relevant associations that would help your company stay ahead of the regulatory curve. The second is to develop a list of existing regulations applicable to the business of your company and identify the key filings and records that need to be made and kept on a periodic basis. Once this is done, the next thing is to train the other departments on what is expected so that they are aware of their obligations.

4. Develop a professional network

When I first started in my role, I realized that having a community you could call upon for answers anytime you faced any issues was of great importance. The FINTECH industry is constantly evolving in Nigeria and as such information is changing daily. Having one or two colleagues you can ask about issues could make the difference. LinkedIn is an amazing place to meet professionals who have already overcome the challenges you face. So, go ahead and connect with them; read their articles and attend webinars where they are speaking. Make sure you deliver value to them whenever you can and the proverbial seed will produce that harvest when you need them.

5. Commit to continuous learning

You need to focus on growing and making progress and understand that you will make mistakes. But most importantly know that it is your job to ensure that you learn from your mistakes. So much can be learned from just one mistake made because one mistake could show you 5 areas of weakness you need to work on. Take the time to review the weaknesses and flaws that any mistake reveals and commit to ensuring that you build systems that will ensure that your mistakes do not recur. For example, when I discovered that manual calculation of figures would sometimes cause me to make errors, I decided to go ahead and use an excel template created for another purpose but which was useful to me.

Conclusion

I have found that very beautiful and interesting things can come out of the most unlikely places. In my time serving in that position, I learned a lot of lessons and it is an experience I would not trade for the world. Wishing you well in your career and if you decide to take the plunge and go in-house, I say a warm "Cheers to your success!"

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Onowe Ajulo

Lawyer in Africa sharing my thoughts on life, law and business.