Lawyard Spotlight: Ify Okoli-Watson (Assistant General Counsel, Thomson Reuters)
Ify Okoli-Watson commercial lawyer with vast experience across employment law, commercial law, operations, risk management, strategy and strategy execution and compliance. She is presently the Assistant General Counsel at Thomson Reuters, the world’s largest multimedia news provider where she oversees compliance and employment matters.
Kindly tell us a bit about your personal journey
I was born in Ajalli, a village in Anambra State, during the Nigerian civil war. It was a tough period to raise children and I can only imagine what my mother went through but thankfully we all got through a very difficult period in our history.
We lived mostly in Lagos when I was younger, and then at fourteen, I moved to the United Kingdom to attend boarding school. I obtained my law degree at the University of Reading and attended the College of Law in Guildford for what was then the Legal Practice Course (LPC), then a pre-requisite to qualifying as a Solicitor.
A couple of years ago, I completed the Oxford University Said Business School FinTech programme because I wanted a deeper appreciation of Data Analytics, AI, and blockchain and the potential impact on society.
I am a member of the Law Society of England and Wales and the American Bar Association.
Would you say that mentors influenced your career decisions?
Yes very much so. I have always had mentors even before I started working. When I started my university degree at the age of 16, I was unsure of what I wanted to study so I turned to my father for advice. He suggested that I study Law because he believed it would be a good foundational degree for any career path I decided on in future.
I have also been fortunate to have mentors and sponsors throughout my career. Whilst mentors are important for advice and acting as a sounding board, I would say sponsors are vital for career progression within an organization. It is important to have people to advocate for you when you are not in the room and talent decisions are being made.
Please tell us more about your professional life
I joined Thomson Reuters just over a year and a half ago and I’m responsible for employment law matters globally for Reuters, the News, and Media business. Reuters is the world’s largest multimedia news provider, reaching billions of people every day with its unparalleled international and national news coverage. It’s an exciting role as we are in nearly 200 locations, so the matters are interesting and varied.
Before my present role at Thomson Reuters, I was previously at Barclays where I spent 12 years in various roles including Africa Head of Employment, Incentives and Pensions Legal, Chief of Staff to the CEO of Barclays Africa and Regional Head of Conduct Risk Compliance for the Investment Bank.
Why did you move from your directorial role at Barclays Investment Bank to an in-house role at Thomson Reuters?
After spending 12 years in various roles within financial services, I felt it was time to try something different and needed a new challenge.
Thomson Reuters is one of the world’s most trusted providers of answers, helping professionals make informed decisions and run better businesses. Our customers operate in highly complex environments that move society forward — law, tax, compliance, government, and media. So, when the opportunity to move into a new and exciting industry came along, for me it was a no brainer!
Although the cultures are different, I have really enjoyed changing industries from banking to news and media, plus the experiences and knowledge I have acquired have transferred well. My banking background has given me a commercial focus and I work with some amazing colleagues who continually demonstrate the importance of fighting for principles.
How has the response of Nigerian law firms been to Thomson Reuters’ Legal products?
I believe Nigerian law firms, like all law firms, are aware that to stay competitive in the current economic climate, you must adopt appropriate technologies. Pressures on legal teams to boost efficiencies and cut costs mean legal technology has never been more important. Added to that, the current situation with the pandemic which has forced most lawyers to work remotely has seen a greater focus on the use of tech by dispersed teams.
Technology is critical on so many different levels – it improves collaboration and enhances efficiency. If you don’t have the right technology, you will fall behind the competition no matter the industry. It is worth investing in Legal Tech tools that enable you manage your resources.
What are your thoughts on some of the techniques that businesses and law firms should look to implement as an offshoot of COVID19?
As an employment lawyer the biggest trend I see is the shift to remote working longer term, even post the pandemic. Many organisations are considering how to harness the benefits of remote working, which include providing employees with a flexible way of working as well as cost savings for the organisation with the reduction in overheads whilst ensuring that they are able to manage potential issues such as dilution of company culture as well as mental health concerns from employees feeling isolated.
It is certainly interesting to follow the changes to the way we work that have been accelerated by the pandemic and I am excited to see what the work-place of the future might look like. One thing is for certain, we are not going back to the way things were and technology is going to continue to be the main enabler in this regard.
What are some of the notable changes that you have noticed in the employment and compliance space in some of the jurisdictions you manage?
I wrote an article for the American Bar Association Employment and Labour Conference on the gig economy, in which I suggest that within a decade, gig-working will overtake traditional employment as the prevalent model. Organisations will tap the pool of talent in response to demand and attract those with the skills to deliver work on a micro-project basis.
Some industries, especially those with a more established freelance tradition (such as journalism) already source work in this way, while others, like the legal profession, will enter a period of accelerating disruption in the coming years. The resulting system will place a premium on the ability to continuously learn new skills and build a range of expertise. In the Compliance space, data privacy will continue to dominate the conversation given the amount of data organizations process and transfer across jurisdictions, whether its employee data or customer data. As they say, data is the new oil!
What would you say have been the major highlights of your work and the challenges you have had to deal with?
Working in a multinational provides opportunities for professional and personal growth. I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to work with and learn from so many great professionals – lawyers and non-lawyers alike. I currently work with a great team. Thomson Reuters’ legal team has a wide, deep range of skills, experiences, and backgrounds from all over the world. There is real strength in diversity. Our industry – news, and media – is constantly at the leading edge of the law, human rights, technology, and delivering the truth. With so much misinformation about, I feel very fortunate to work for an organization that is committed to providing impartial reporting and intelligence.
Being Chief of Staff in a multinational bank, gave me a great insight into the way a modern, global organization works. Apart from learning how various moving parts need to interconnect efficiently, I gained a real appreciation of the importance of strategy execution, corporate governance, and hands-on leadership.
I have taken on roles where the learning curve has been steep, but the experience made me a better leader as I had to ensure I brought my engagement style to the job. The roles often required balancing competing interests, both internally for resources and externally with regulators, keeping teams focused on commercial outcomes and countless long nights.
Considering how highly competitive the world has become, what is your parting shot for young lawyers who want to be like you?
Traditional career paths are narrowing, and I think employers of the future will increasingly rely on multi-skilled employees. As we live and work longer, careers will become multi-directional, with several discrete, continuous, or even concurrent careers the norm. Young lawyers need not only to ensure that they are tech-savvy but that they are continuously learning new skills to remain competitive.
On a lighter note, what do you enjoy doing outside work?
I am an avid runner and have run several marathons and ultra-marathons including the world-famous Two Oceans ultra-marathon in Cape Town. I like to try new experiences, like skydiving and kayaking.
I am spiritual, so I enjoy studying the Scriptures and the works of theologians like C S Lewis.
If you never forayed into law, what career path would you have taken?
I think I would have liked a career in politics and a couple of years ago I stood as a councillor in the local elections. Although I wasn’t elected I enjoyed the experience as it was a chance to engage with people in my community and it is something I may return to when I retire from my legal career.