Damilola Katibi's journey from Nigeria to becoming senior counsel at Vale Canada

The Lexpert Rising Stars judge speaks about mentoring international lawyers and sustainable mining

Damilola Katibi's journey from Nigeria to becoming senior counsel at Vale Canada
Damilola Katibi

Dami Katibi is senior counsel at Vale Canada. Last year, she was named a Lexpert Rising Star, recognizing lawyers 40 and under in Canada. This year, she will judge the awards. Nominations for the 2024 awards are now open, and the final deadline to nominate is July 5.

Katibi spoke on our CL Talk podcast about her path from practising law in Nigeria, working as an associate at McCarthy Tétrault and becoming senior counsel at Vale Canada. She also spoke about mentoring internationally trained lawyers, how interviews differ in Canada, her work on a joint venture and sustainable mining at Vale, and what it meant to her to win last year's Lexpert Rising Stars award.

This episode can also be found on our CL Talk podcast homepage, which includes links to follow CL Talk on all the major podcast providers.

Below is a summary of the conversation, edited for length and clarity:

Tell me about your path from practising law in Nigeria to becoming senior counsel at Vale Canada.

Most of my education was in Nigeria, West Africa, including my undergraduate degree as a lawyer. In Nigeria, people study law at a university directly after high school. You spend six years as opposed to the three years to study law in Canada. After I completed that, I worked with a boutique law firm in Lagos, Nigeria, for about two years. I came to Canada in 2012 for a master's degree at Osgoode Hall Law School.

After your master's degree, you joined McCarthy Tétrault’s financial services team.

I joined McCarthys at the tail end of my master's as an intern. I then articled with them and joined their business group in 2015 as an associate. McCarthys encouraged me to have a general practice, so I did, but I also focused on financial services. I did securities, corporate finance, and general business law work as well. I did that until 2019 when I moved to Vale.

What made you decide to move to an in-house role?

At the time, there was a high demand for legal counsel in private practice. I did not search for the position at Vale; I was poached. I thought I could try it out, and if I didn't like it, I could come back due to the high demand for legal counsel in law firms at the time. I was advised not to be pigeonholed into something too narrow, and this position was a general practice. It was going to be like being at a mini law firm. So, I took that opportunity, thinking the risk was relatively low. I'm happy I did so.

You have since worked to help other internationally trained lawyers who want to work in Canada.

One of the things I found when I moved here was that the interview process was very different from the process in Nigeria, even though the work itself was very similar. I was fortunate to have had good mentors when I came to Canada. They were able to educate me on what to expect at interviews, how to conduct myself, and what was expected of me from the interviewers. I find that there are a lot of intelligent international lawyers who come into the country. Because of the difference in culture and expectations, though, they don’t get the chance to demonstrate their skills to a good law firm like I did. So, I tried to mentor and teach international lawyers about expectations, conduct, and how to market themselves and make connections within the industry. They have the skills but may not know how to showcase or advertise those skills to the right law firm or company.

How is the interview process different in Nigeria than in Canada?

In Canada, it's not so much about your education and how excellent you were in school and your grades; it’s more about your social skills and how you're able to interact with the world around you. This is very different from Nigeria, where it's more about your grades and how fantastic you are in school. I explain to candidates how some of their experience in Nigeria can demonstrate these social skills. For example, a person involved in their local church or church choir may not see that as a social skill. So, I help them identify those additional skills and translate them in a way the interviewer understands.

What is a highlight so far from your work at Vale?

I helped my company with an essential cross-jurisdictional joint venture with elements in Asia and North America. Some of the details are confidential, but it took the company decades to reach an agreement with this partner. We aligned significantly on that transaction, which was important for the business.

You have worked on several sustainability initiatives including a $1.6 million investment to the University of Toronto to enhance sustainable mining.

The mining industry doesn't have a fantastic reputation. Still, we are constantly looking for ways to mine better, be more aware of the environment, and ensure we are mindful miners. Many other organizations have similar interests, so we are constantly partnering with universities, like the University of Toronto, to find innovative ways to mine that are better for the environment. We understand that there are environmental impacts regardless of the method we use to mine. We are constantly looking for ways to minimize those impacts as best as possible, even if it is more expensive.

For in-house lawyers, there's always a tension between being a lawyer and a business partner. How do you navigate that?

It's a different perspective when you're in private practice, and you have 1,001 clients. You usually get discrete tasks. In an organization, you have one client that may have 1,000 needs. The good thing is that you better understand why they need those other elements. You are now providing advice from within where you see the whole picture. That helps you prioritize your demands with counterparties because you know what the business needs to achieve. You become a businessperson first and a lawyer second because you're constantly looking at everything from the company's perspective.

The Lexpert Rising Stars Award is a significant milestone for many lawyers. How did you feel when you found out that you had won?

It felt validating. The legal space is not as glamorous as it is on TV. You're working on an agreement on your computer, maybe chatting with counterparties occasionally, but you may feel like a cog in your little world. Having that opportunity to be recognized on such a platform validates that work.

This year, you will be judging the awards. What do you hope to achieve by being a judge?

Winning was one of the highlights of my year. I found that very exciting. To be part of another person's journey and find deserving individuals for this award, how could I say no to that?

Internationally trained lawyers face a lot of barriers. So, what would you say to Canadian lawyers in leadership about making it easier to find those lawyers?

Law firms have advanced significantly in this regard. When I first arrived in Canada, some law firms did not even know you get a certification when you're internationally trained. You go through the National Accreditation Committee of Canada. Now, a lot of law firms are more educated in that regard. There is progress. Some organizations and law firms have a separate stream for internationally trained lawyers to be able to get interviews.

I always tell people to go anywhere they see these lawyers gather. You never know who you'll be able to talk to. I know some people had good opportunities that way because they spoke to a partner there, and the partner took an interest in them, or they reached out to someone on LinkedIn, and the person then talked to them over coffee, which then opened the doors for something else.

I would advise law firms and managing partners to be open-minded. You never know who that person could be. They may be your firm's next managing partner.

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