Charles Osuji on the importance of grace, innovation, leadership - and the benefit of being bold
Speaker1: [00:00:14] On this very special episode, I am delighted to welcome one of this year's rising stars of 2021, Charles Osuji, the managing partner, chief executive officer and lawyer at Osuji &Smith Lawyers. Firstly, Charles, congratulations and welcome.
Speaker2: [00:00:31] Thanks for having me here.
Speaker1: [00:00:33] Now for my first question, you've made a series of bold moves during your career, from moving to Canada, from Nigeria to becoming sole owner of your firm at 31. What drives you to take on these challenges?
Speaker2: [00:00:48] A few factors constitute the driver for these decisions. Number one family. I come from a very professional family. I have I have seven siblings and the older ones are well-to-do in terms of their individual careers. They've made inroads in their various professions. So growing up and looking up to them as my model. I didn't have a choice but to step up my game and be responsible. Mom is a nurse. Dad was a teacher, so you could imagine the kind of background I come from. So family first. Secondly, you know, coming to Canada, know there's a bunch of narratives out there for newcomers, for immigrants, people of color and a bunch of ceilings out there as well for people that look and sound like me. And when I had the opportunity to buy the firm, I took it, you know, after I received some encouragement from my mentors, Mr Rando, my brother, Dr. Joseph Osuji and Mr. Smith, my former partner. With that support, I took the challenge of taking over the firm, and I realized that my story was not just for me alone, it was for people that look like I sound like me, people that are coming after me, and I had to make sure that every decision I made sense and I had the ability to support and follow through on those decisions.
So I represent more than myself. I represent the, hope I represent the possibility of someone coming here, such a young age and making bold moves and taking chances and taking taking no risks as well. So these are the factors that propelled me to work harder and be the best I can be for myself. For those coming after me.
Speaker1: [00:02:49] Awesome. Thank you. And you call your approach to the practice of law entrepreneurial, multicultural and holistic. Can you tell us more about what that looks like and how it sets your firm apart?
Speaker2: [00:03:00] So I took over from Mr. Smith. Mr. Smith with my former principal. He took me on as a student in 2013, and I became a lawyer in Alberta in 2014. I shortly thereafter, Mr. Smith was looking to retire and he was looking for a succession plan in place. So I became the succession plan. I made an offer to him he couldn’t reject, and we became, first of all, became partners. And then I took over the practice sometime in 2017. I quickly realized that the story of Osuji a& Smith is beyond just the practice of law. There's more to it. We have this old white man who just turned 80 versus this young black man from Nigeria, from across the world, coming together and putting their heads together to run their practice, you know, without focusing on that racial divide. So, it's quite a story, and that's why I chose my last name, because it's a name that would sound a little more mainstream and we came together, I began to realize that there was actually beauty. And and there's so there's power in diversity as power in coming together, people that look different. And that has propelled my desire and my model for the firm.
Speaker2: [00:04:26] I focus on getting people from different diverse ethnic backgrounds. If you look at it from, you would see someone caught my eye from a small United Nations to see someone that represents every ethnicity. For the most part, Spanish, I see the Russians, the Canadians, you Nigerians, see the South Koreans, Chinese, the Indians. That is my story. My story is diversity or excellence in diversity. So I find the most multicultural approach to what I am doing. I to suggest Smith to be one thing that sets us apart. Secondly, I also consider the fact that law is more than just practice. There's also the business side of it, and I didn't know this until I took over the firm. You know, right now I see myself more as a business person than I see myself as a lawyer. However, I cannot sacrifice my obligations to my clients as a lawyer on the altar of business interests, in as much as law is the business, as do all my clients, the duty to be competent, the duty to have integrity and the duty to be honest with them and ensure that their best interests are upheld.
Speaker1: [00:05:47] And which of your awards and recognitions mean the most to you? What are you most proud of?
Speaker2: [00:05:53] All of them. They are very important to me. I specifically like the Sport Rising Star Award because it's across Canada. I also like the, I appreciate the top 25 most influential lawyers that I received last year from Canadian magazine and the Top 40 under 40 by the avenue category and a bunch of other awards. The beauty of this recognition is that I have fortunately received recognition from various sectors. I received industry specific recognitions. I've received recognition as an immigrant through the immigrant services category. I received the achievement honor 35. These are all validation of what I'm doing, what I'm bringing to the table every day, and this story that I'm telling, I take the advantage of the privilege that I have to inspire people and make sure that people that come after me have more than what I did or what I had when I came to this country about my years ago. So they all mean different things to me. But most importantly, I appreciate every recognition I've received as a way of creating more opportunities and changing the narrative out there for people that come after me.
Speaker1: [00:07:18] Now, despite your success, you're described as kind and genuine and prioritize paying it forward through your volunteer efforts and mentoring. Why is it important to you to give back to the various communities that you're involved with?
Speaker2: [00:07:33] I had been a benefactor sort of beneficiary of a lot of people helping me. Where I come from, we believe that a child is the product of the community, starting from the family. My older ones looked after me. They inspired me to motivated me and then come into this country. I run into CRIEC. Craig stands for Calgary Region Immigrant Employment Council. It's an organization that caters to internationally trained professionals, and I was connected to the executive director, Mr. Randall. Then I ran into Mr Smith, who took me on as a student without knowing my story too much, but he just gave me a chance. I did run into so many mentors along the way. These are the people that have given me a helping hand without necessarily expecting anything in return. So I owe a lot of what I've achieved so far to people giving me a hand at every step of the way and leading me, but had to show me the ropes. The least I am required to do is to give back to make sure that if I have been given one chance, then I give 20 chances to other people and this is what I've been doing. The firm, we have students, we have volunteers. I volunteer with so many communities. I provide access to justice to people. I cannot otherwise qualify for.
Speaker2: [00:09:03] One and one of my mentors once told me that you have to be a good person first for you to be a good lawyer, and that advice resonates very deeply with me.
The legal profession is a profession where many people easily lose their soul and lose their core values because of how adversarial the business is, how adversarial the practice is. Once in a while, we have to step back and remember that people that come to us are not just fine numbers. These are real people with real challenges, real problems, and they must be looked after and that fashion from that humanistic perspective. So I try my best to bring kindness to work every day and also inspire my lawyers in the firm to do us well. We went from a five six member law firm to almost 20 now in the space of three years, three or four years, because we are very mindful of the fact that we must always bring our humanity to the work that we do and the privilege that I've been given wouldn't make any sense whatsoever if others don't benefit from it. And I really hope that I'm remembered for the number of people that I helped in my journey and the number of opportunities I've given to others because of the blessings I've received myself.
Speaker1: [00:10:35] That is awesome. Thank you, Charles. And if I may, What does success mean to you? Do you think you'll ever be satisfied with your accomplishments or are there more bold moves to come in your future?
Speaker2: [00:10:48] Success, to me means someone else getting ahead because of me. That is success. If someone becomes a lawyer, gets called to the bar, gets their first Canadian experience in my firm, or gets a reference letter from me. And because of that fancy job somewhere or decides to come to Canada because of my story, that is success to me. And there's definitely going to be both more bold moves in the future, because the more the moves are making, the more I'm able to help as many people as possible. We have just finalized a commercial building that is four or five times bigger than our current space, which will accommodate more lawyers, more people, more volunteers, more students. To me, that is success because I'm creating more opportunities for more people and the more opportunities I create for people, the more successful that I feel. It has nothing to do with me. It has everything to do with all this looking up to me. I hope whoever is listening to this story or to me talk understands the power of giving people a chance and this is what has. You know what my partnership with Mr. Smith has demonstrated. Because of that relationship, so many people have been given a chance and gotten ahead in their career.
Speaker1: [00:12:19] Well, that wraps things up. Thank you and congratulations again, Charles. And thank you for joining us.