ULaw alumnus Solomon Wifa can lay claim to helping get a man off death row in Jamaica as well as becoming the youngest-ever managing partner of the London office of international firm O’Melveny & Myers. His incredible journey is a real inspiration to students and testament to hard work and perseverance. He shares it with us here.
My childhood dream was to be a doctor but after miserably failing chemistry at school, my teachers said I would be better suited to the arts and humanities. So for me, it was going to be law or maybe economics or architecture. I already had a sister and uncle who were qualified lawyers and so it felt right, it felt familiar.
A law qualification gives you many invaluable life skills – almost like a toolkit to use not just professionally but personally too. It provides you with transferable skills to take into most situations and helps you to look at those situations more dispassionately, analysing both the risks and benefits.
I also believed that a law degree would allow me to do anything I wanted. It would open doors. I didn't think all these years on that I would still be a solicitor, I imagined I would have moved into more of a business role – a law degree gives you those transferable skills to be able to do that which is what interested me.
I studied the LPC over 2 years part time at ULaw Guildford campus, graduating in 1997. I absolutely loved the campus and the course, and have made lifelong friends from my time there. The space and serenity of the campus was ideal for me, escaping the big city to a calmer place to focus and learn.
I enjoyed and highly valued the practical element of the course and soon realised that I wanted to be closer to the clients and I realised I was interested in law aligned with business rather than the bar.
A qualification in law has been fundamental in achieving my career ambitions. Having studied at the most respected institution meant that I experienced law at the most prestigious level. I knew I wanted to be a solicitor and that I wanted to work at the business end of law, so it was important to me to make sure I had the transferable skills in order to fulfil this commercial element.
As an undergraduate I also worked nights for extra cash as a night porter at The Langham Hotel in London, a prestigious 5 star hotel (my claim to fame was opening the doors to the late Princess Di). Owned at the time by the Hilton Group, I spoke to someone in the company to see if I could get some work experience in their legal department so during my holidays I worked in the day in the office as a paralegal and then back to my night porter duties at the hotel. Looking back I don’t know how I did it but you do what you have to do and it was absolutely worth it. They liked me and whilst there I got the opportunity to work on a case with SJ Berwin. Following this, I was lucky enough to be offered a paralegal position with them, this led to be being asked to apply for a training contract which I successfully achieved. I think my message here is don’t leave any stone un-turned, think laterally and network because you never know where it might take you.
My biggest career highlight was getting a condemned prisoner off death row in Jamaica. I was a young lawyer doing some pro bono work at S J Berwin and never in a million years would I have imagined working on a case like that. We succeeded in having his sentence commuted and to this day I have a model boat made out of match sticks in my office sent as a gift from the client. Called ‘Cruising Glory’ – everyday this boat reminds me to take a step back and put things into perspective.
My advice to law students starting out is to persevere. If you really want it, and I mean REALLY want it that bad look beyond the first no, and even the second no and keep going until you get that YES. When I was studying at ULaw, I must have completed over 300 applications and was knocked back from about 99%. It is hard at this time, especially in such a competitive field, so it must be something you 100% have your heart set on – don’t go into it half hearted, be resolute. Also, be strategic – go for what interests you, what you’re passionate about and what you know – that way you will shine through.
I recently joined Willkie Farr & Gallagher to help build out the Firm’s European private equity platform. Previous to this, I was Managing Partner at O’Melveny & Myers’s London office which kept me very busy travelling all over the world. When I joined O’Melveny we were small and I loved being part of something that had the potential to grow, and that’s exactly what we did in the 11 years I had been there.
Promoting diversity is very important to me. I would love to see greater diversity across all levels of the profession. It is encouraging to see more women and ethnic minorities entering the industry but this is not as representative higher up the chain.
I am also really keen to help raise awareness, give support and guidance to fully prepare students entering firms – making sure they not only know their discipline but are business ready for the commercial world.
Outside of work I am a big football fan and some years ago got an opportunity to travel with Barcelona on their off-season tour to Japan. I hung around with the players and coaching staff and was introduced to a shy young star player who had not yet made the first team. That shy young star player was Messi.