Ep 8 – Charles Osuji – From Immigrant to Partner by 31

The Ambition Project – Calgary Entrepreneurial Podcast

The Ambition Project is a video series in which we interview successful and ambitious Calgary entrepreneurs and talk to them about their struggles, what they’ve had to overcome on their journey and valuable insights they have to share with up and coming business owners. The series will premiere on September 18th, 2018. Be sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel to stay updated or stream an episode on Spotify or iTunes.

Jonathan Hafichuk: Welcome Charles, thank you so much for taking the time to come out for this project. You are part of the trailer, people were super impressed with your story there, so I think they’ll be excited to hear a longer version of it because that was very condensed. So Charles is an extremely successful lawyer. He moved here a few years ago. You passed the bar exam here, you ended up getting into a law firm, you made partner and then you bought out your partner all before the age of 31. So it’s quite the journey.

Charles Osuji: Thank you.

Jonathan Hafichuk: Especially for coming to a new country and having to rebuild your network. So, maybe just to start out, tell us a little bit about what your law firm offers, and what you do and what clients can expect from you.

Charles Osuji: Thanks John for having me, I appreciate it. The name of my law firm is Osuji and Smith Lawyers and we are located at 348 14th Street, NW, Calgary. We’re a full-service law firm. That means we do everything other than criminal law. Other than criminal law, we do everything. We do family law, we do employments, we do real estate, we do foreclosures, we do personal injuries, we do wills and estate, we do business and corporation law.

Charles Osuji and Jon Hafichuk

Jonathan Hafichuk: And what do you find sets you apart from your competition?

Charles Osuji: I am young and hungry. So, you correctly stated, I bought out my partner last year after I [inaudible 00:01:59] with the firm as a student. And so I am ready to work seven days a week and I have a very young and diverse team of lawyers as well. So there are six lawyers in the firm with five support staff. So we’re young, we are hungry, we are ready to provide the best service we could for our clients.

Jonathan Hafichuk: So let’s go back a little bit here. How did you first realize you wanted to become a lawyer?

Charles Osuji: Back in the day, back when I was in university, I was thinking I was going to be an English teacher simply because I loved to read. Then I realized that maybe as an English teacher, I may not be able to make a lot of money. So, I quickly realized that I could utilize my zeal for reading and have that zeal transferred to a legal profession. So I decided to try my hands at law and I realized that it came naturally to me, being a lawyer and that I did very well in law school and so far so good.

Jonathan Hafichuk: What did you study in Nigeria?

Charles Osuji: I studied at Imo State University. So Nigeria has a different process for qualification as a lawyer. You have to go through a five year university program and then one-year law school. So it took me about six years to be a lawyer, major. And I was called to the Nigerian bar in 2010 and then immigrated to Canada a year afterwards.

Jonathan Hafichuk: So in Nigeria is high school similar? Is the system similar?

Charles Osuji: Similar, yes. Just called a different name. It’s called secondary school, but here it’s called high school.

Jonathan Hafichuk: Okay. And did you go straight from that into university?

Charles Osuji on The Ambition Project podcast

Charles Osuji: Yes. So, that is a little different as well from the process here. Here in Canada, you need to have a four-year degree and then try your LSAT and get into law. But in Nigeria, you could go straight to law from high school, but it takes you a longer period of time to qualify as a lawyer. So it’s going to take you at least six years to qualify as a lawyer in Nigeria. So the five-year program is kind of meshed up with other programs as well. It’s is more like a double major in five years before you become a lawyer here.

Jonathan Hafichuk: What was it like growing up in Nigeria?

Charles Osuji: My story is a little different because I grew up living with one of my brothers, who’s a Reverend Father, a Catholic priest. So as young as seven years old, I had two choices. I was either reading or I was sleeping. So I didn’t watch cartoons growing up, I didn’t watch a lot of TV growing up. So I lived a very disciplined life, not by choice as a seven-year-old, but because of the kind of person I was living with. As a Catholic priest all he wanted me to be, was focused. So it was quite challenging as a child. I hated him, but I do bless him now, I do appreciate him for what he did for me. And I had a happy childhood to be quite honest. I was born into an adult family, a family of 10. I’m the seventh child. When I was born my immediate older sibling was already 11 years old and my oldest sibling was 24 years old. So I had a lot of big brothers and big sisters that were there to assist and help me out. So I was born into an adult, happy family. And I remember my childhood in a very positive fashion.

Jonathan Hafichuk: So you moved to Canada in 2010, did you say?

Charles Osuji: 11.

Jonathan Hafichuk: 2011?

Charles Osuji: Yes.

Jonathan Hafichuk: So what made you decide to move here?

Charles Osuji: Family. In 2011, my oldest brother was already here with his family, so he was gracious enough to apply for my immigration to Canada. His name is Joseph Osuji. He’s a professor at Mount Royal University. He sponsored my immigration to Canada and when I came here I also had other siblings as well. I had Agatha Osuji, I had [inaudible 00:06:12] Osuji, and they give me a soft landing, so to speak. So the support that I received from them was quite helpful for me at the very early stage of my stay here in Canada. In 2012, I challenged the NCA exams. Now, this is the examination you write if you’re a foreign-trained lawyer so that your degree is deemed equivalent to the degree one would obtain here in Canada.

Charles Osuji: And after that, I started looking for articles. So articles are equivalent to internship and I interned at the firm that I own right now and I started with them in 2013. A year afterward I was called to the [inaudible 00:06:55] bar in 2014, and in 2016 I became a partner in the firm. A few months later I bought out my partner. So, that’s my story.

Jonathan Hafichuk: What keeps you working so hard? What’s your motivation?

Charles Osuji with Jon Hafichuk

Charles Osuji: I want to be the better version of myself from yesterday. I want to beat my record from yesterday. So, I set records and goals every day and I want to make sure that I meet those goals. And I get this question a lot, whether as between passion and necessity, what drives me the most, and I tell people what drives me the most is a necessity. Passion gets the fire started, necessity drives the passion. When I took over the firm, I moved from being responsible for myself alone as an associate, to having about 10 people look after me. I know that they rely on me. If business is not going well, they’re going to be on the streets, their families would be on the streets. That motivates me. And secondly, I want to be the best lawyer I could be for my clients. These people come to us when they’re in the very dark moments of their lives and they want some resolutions to their problems. You want to give them a very good experience. So my clients, my staff, are my personal goals. They motivate me and they push me.

Jonathan Hafichuk: So is that the first thing you think about when you wake up in the morning? Is that what really just gets you going?

Charles Osuji: I don’t even sleep. Kidding. My clients, I mean I’m in a profession where we provide help, that’s what we do, we help people. And I am fortunate to be in a place where I could help people go through very, very dark moments of their life, and I take what I do very seriously. Sometimes it’s hard for me to sleep well at night because I’m thinking about a client’s file, I’m looking at exploring options and alternatives to make the client spends the least and get out of the problem easily and most efficiently. So, they keep me up because they rely on me.

Charles Osuji: I help people that have been fired from their employment after 25 years of service. I’ve helped people that are going through a divorce after 40 years of marriage. I’ve helped people that are buying a business for the first time and they’re spending their hard-earned savings into purchasing this business. These are real situations. They completely rely on my expertise and my knowledge to help them get through it. What I find is people tend to rely on lawyers. If I tell my clients to jump, they asked me how high do you want me to jump? Because they assume that I know what I’m doing. They assume that I’m looking after them. They assume that I know the best possible options to help them. So, all of this keeps me going. They keep me awake at night.

Charles Osuji from Osuji and Smith Lawyers

Jonathan Hafichuk: How do you not let all of these problems that you’re thinking about all the time in these difficult situations, how do you not let them bring you too much stress or bring you down too much? What kind of things do you do to keep a guard up so that you’re not just constantly being bombarded with that negativity and letting that become your problem?

Charles Osuji: Very good question. So I try to set the stage at the very first meeting with the client. I let them know that nothing is guaranteed. So I have to manage their expectation, let them know that even though I’m going to do my best for them, I am not going to guarantee any success because it takes two to tango. If a client is going through a divorce, it takes the other party, the other spouse to negotiate. It takes the other spouse to agree to terms. So, I let the client know from the get-go that I’m not going to guarantee any success, but I’m going to do the best I can. And there are boundaries as well. Don’t email me over the weekend, don’t email me past 10:00 PM and expect a response. You could email me but don’t expect a response. And I have a team of very diligent and competent professionals in my firm that also help. So I’m not taking on these files all by myself, I have four or five associates that are willing to help me manage my client’s files as well. So all of these parameters are in place to ensure I don’t go crazy.

Jonathan Hafichuk: Have you had problems in the past with letting other people’s problems stress you out too much or affect you too much?

Charles Osuji: Absolutely. It’s just happened. I think it just gets better with time. I remember my first year or two of practice, if I was not successful in court, I would have a very horrible week. I would have a very horrible weekend, because I had erroneously believed that I was the Messiah for the client, not knowing and not being cognizant of the fact that there’s so many factors beyond my control, there’s so much I can do for a client. So I’ve had situations where I allow my personal beliefs to overcome my objectivity. I’ve also had situations where I allowed my relationship with a client or my impression of a client, overcome my objectivity. But with time, when you see this follows a common goal and you help people, you know what works and what doesn’t work, you quickly realize that there’s so much you can do for a client. And if it doesn’t go well, as long as you did your best, then you should be okay.

Jonathan Hafichuk: Clients, I imagine, really appreciate that you care so much about them and that you are really focused on their outcome being the best possible. I imagine there’s some incidences in your industry where that’s not the case? I’ve definitely heard mixed things about different lawyers and people being disappointed, but …

Charles Osuji: Absolutely. Just a matter of outlook. If you see your legal practice as just work, you know, get the work done, go to work at nine and go home at five, then you not going in with the right attitude. I look at it as I am here to help. I’m in the service industry and these people completely rely on me, completely rely on me. If I am giving them an informed opinion, they’re going to rely on that opinion and it’s an expensive opinion. So I see myself as a service provider and I go with my heart when I provide work and services for my client. And that makes a lot of difference.

Jonathan Hafichuk: For sure.

Charles Osuji

Charles Osuji: The few times I could not help a client, the client could tell that it was beyond my control. And I’ve had a client retain another lawyer. She told me that, “Charles, you a great human being, I like you, but I think I want a second opinion. I want a second opinion, and with respect to be smarter. Not because your opinion is bad, but I just want to have that comfort of having another opinion.” So it’s all about the mindset and the attitude towards do you see it as work, or do you see it as helping people?

Jonathan Hafichuk: So you mentioned before when we talked, that one of your struggles was when you moved here, you didn’t have a network. So, how did you deal with that and how stressful was that at first?

Charles Osuji: It was very stressful and scary at the same time because I was coming from Nigeria where I had to come to secondary school, university, law school. I had developed some kind of professional network along the way, including family support, and I was more or less stripped of all of that when I landed here in 2011. I realized that and I needed to build my network from the ground up. So what I did was, first of all, leverage my family network, the immediate support group, and then leverage to the Nigerian community. The Nigerian community is actually very robust and there are lots of successful Nigerians here in Calgary. From there I joined a mentorship organization called CRIEC. CRIEC stands for Calgary Region Immigrant Employment Council. I connected with the director, Bruce Randall, and Bruce Randall introduced me to a lot of people.

Charles Osuji: I always tell people to be more deliberate with mentorship. You know, you have a mentor, but you guys only mentor us in two months. And you guys only talk over the phone once in a month. That does not make any sense. You need to be very deliberate, you need to be formal with it. I need to be more serious, I need to have this structured, that we can get the best out of it. So through CRIEC and networking generally, I was able to eventually build my network. And through someone in my network, I met my partner, Jim Smith, and that was my first interview, by the way, when I was looking for articles, my first and only interview. So I interviewed with him and I remember a day before the interview I had met with my mentor and I was asking him to give me some clue as to the kind of questions I’ll be expecting, and my mentor told me, “Look, Jim Smith is an older guy, he will be looking for effect, just be yourself with him.” And I was myself, I was offered articles the same day and two years in he realized that I was his succession plan. We got into conversation with respect to taking over the firm from him and it’s been great so far.

Jonathan Hafichuk: So do you have any advice for entrepreneurs in finding a mentor?

Charles Osuji, Calgary lawyer and yyc entrepreneur

Charles Osuji: Yes. A few tips. Find someone in your industry, someone that you wish to be like in the next five, 10 years and Calgary presents with so many options when it comes to mentors. There’s so many people that have retired, looking to give back to the community. And mentorship is the only way they can give back, take advantage of that. There’s so many mentorship organizations in Calgary, take advantage of that. Find someone in your industry and also network with people in your shoes. If you do go for network with people in that industry if you’re a lawyer, network with people in that industry.

Charles Osuji: I find that the quality clients that I have as my clients are really clients from my immediate network, from people that I went to law school with when I was writing the bar exams here, the people that I met my first year when I was articling. Through those people, I’m getting good quality work. And the good thing with referrals is the clients tend to trust you from the get-go, because the clients is being referred from someone that they trust. So mentorship is quite critical and networking, targeted networking, is quite critical for entrepreneurs.

Jonathan Hafichuk: So when you were first starting out, either before or after you started articling and you were scrambling to rebuild that network, what fears did you have at that time?

Charles Osuji: I was so scared. I thought I was not going to be a lawyer in Calgary or in Canada. The thing with immigrants is, an average immigrant wants to ensure that the decision to leave their home country to immigrate to a different country, is justified. When I left Nigeria, I would have easily stayed back and joined a big law firm or small firm or done something with my degree. But I left all of that behind to come to a different country. And I’ve heard stories of people being medical practitioners back where they’re coming from or lawyers, and they come here and they lose track or they’re not fortunate enough to be able to qualify and continue in their chosen professions. So that possibility was at the back of my mind, I thought it was possible that that would happen and that kept me going. I needed to ensure that I was a lawyer here because that was more or less a combination of my training back in Nigeria. I knew that I could only be a lawyer here and that was my way, that was my ticket to success.

Jonathan Hafichuk: So now, where you’re at now, you’re in essence practicing as a lawyer and you’re a business owner. How do you balance those two things and what struggles come along with that?

Charles Osuji: As a business owner and as a practicing lawyer, you have to always track the balance, a balance at all times. I’ve quickly realized, by the way, that I do more of the business side of things than the practice. It is almost 9:00 PM and I’m here talking about practice and all of that. You need to be able to track that balance and my staff and my team are able to help me. I do a lot of marketing, I do a lot of volunteer work. Last week Saturday, I just opened up a free legal clinic, every month with one association in down South. So I do a lot of marketing, I do a lot of volunteer work. I also do a lot of community outreach to get a name out there, to get a business and the recognition that we need at this stage of our career. So at the same time, you cannot lose sight of practice. The work, the quality of work for your clients, cannot be sacrificed, because they’re trying to build their business. You still need to provide your clients with the best service.

Jonathan Hafichuk: Yeah, that’s important. So, you’re putting a lot of time into volunteering and networking and marketing. How do you determine the results and if you’re using your energy and your resources properly?

Charles Osuji: We were recently really one of the best employment lawyers in Calgary. That rating came in 2017, and we maintained that rating in 2018 as well. We’ve seen an offshoot in clientele. Our profits are doubled in the past one year, a [inaudible 00:22:23] not. And we’ve seen a hike in client satisfaction as well. Clients are asking us to send them links so that they can leave Google reviews for the work we’ve done. So I think all of these are testaments to the kind of work that we’re doing and the kind of services that we’re providing to the community. And at the same time, we are registered with Legal Aid. We are registered with Lawyer Referral Service. These are agencies that afford low-income individuals access to free legal services. All of this have attributed and contributed to a more positive result in our legal services.

Jonathan Hafichuk: That’s great. So have you had anybody be biased towards you because of your race and your heritage?

Charles Osuji: Good question. I find that really, that is what some people fear, especially immigrants. If they have an opportunity to be an entrepreneur or they have an opportunity to take over a business or buy a business or set up something for themselves, they worry so much about the color of their skin, about the sound of their voice and all of that. But from my personal experience, I really think that what people want is someone that will help them. If you can provide good quality service to individuals, if you can help someone get through a situation, on the basic level they wouldn’t really care about the color of your skin, they wouldn’t care about the sound of your voice, where they have an accent, where you come from and all of that, because they know that you can help them. I’m not belittling the reality that’s racism exists, I’m just saying that that cannot be an excuse for an average immigrant. The fact that you look different from the majority does not mean that if you provide good work to people, you will not be successful in what you’re doing.

Jonathan Hafichuk: Yeah. I have a few friends who’ve immigrated here and it seems like generally speaking, oftentimes the immigrants have a better work ethic than a lot of the people that are here.

Charles Osuji: Absolutely. And I spoke to that earlier on. Immigrants come here with a resolve, to do better than they did back in where they are coming from, and they want to justify the decision to move from their comfort zone to a strange land. So that drive is all surmountable. They drive to make sense of the transition from their home country to a strange land. They drive to justify that decision, they drive to make the ends meet and their tolerance level is very high. So, they come with great qualities, they come with great resolve and ambition.

Jonathan Hafichuk and Charles Osuji

Jonathan Hafichuk: Do you sometimes see the other side of things where you have immigrants that come to that try and bring some of their problems with them?

Charles Osuji: I mean, that’s the human tendency, to take your problems along wherever you’re going. But Canada presented very healthy culture and a very healthy ecosystem that tends to prevent all of those tendencies from fostering. I remember when I came here in 2011, I couldn’t drive for one year. So there’s a system in place to slow you down so that you don’t jump behind the wheels and crash and burn. So, Calgary or Canada as a whole, has developed certain structures and systems in place to check all of those tendencies from people coming from different parts of the world with different tendencies as well.

Jonathan Hafichuk: What do you have for advice for entrepreneurs who have fears and who are struggling and maybe doubting themselves?

Charles Osuji: The fear may not be real. And how do you know that the fear may not be real? By taking a plunge. Sometimes that’s really what it takes to understand that the fear is not real in the first place. And most importantly, you need to have very good people in your life. I was fortunate to have my big brother, Joseph Osuji, to have my partner, Mr. Smith, to have my mentor, Bruce Randall before I took over. Between the two of us, I didn’t want to take over the practice. I didn’t want to take over the building, I didn’t want to be responsible for almost 30, 40, $50,000 overhead every month. I didn’t want to do all of that. I wanted to snuggle up in my comfort zone and look after myself and not be responsible for anyone. But these are the people that say, trust, you can do it. You’re a rockstar, you’re born for this, you have your work ethic, you have all the zillion ambition and drive to take this plunge. So, sometimes you need to surround yourself with people that will push you, people, that see what you cannot see in yourself, for you to overcome that fear. Which is really, that stumbling block, between where you are and where you should be.

Jonathan Hafichuk: I’m a very firm believer that you’re the average of the five people you associate with most. Have you had to distance yourself from certain people that were bringing you in the other direction?

Charles Osuji: I mean, it happens, or it happened naturally. When you’re working seven days a week and grinding it and pushing it, some people naturally fall out from your radar. So it wasn’t a conscious decision to let some people go, it just happened because they couldn’t take the heat. They were not bringing the incentive to the table, so they eventually fell off along the way.

Jonathan Hafichuk: How do you, when working that much, make time for the people that you do want to be around and spend time with?

Charles Osuji: It’s a goal, is something I’m looking forward to. I do spend time with family and friends, but I could spend more time with them. And however, I see this stage of my career as the moment or the period, that I need to invest in, laying a solid foundation. It’s not going to be this crazy forever. I think is a goal that one day I could afford to do five days a week and have people work for me, have money work for me, have people that are even better lawyer than I am, provide services to my clients. So it is a work in progress. An entrepreneur must be conscious of the sacrifice that they must make at the very beginning of their entrepreneurship and I find that part of the sacrifices I must make at this stage of my career is downtime. And certain leisures that ordinarily an average person would want to have, I’ve sacrificed all of that. But I know that it is for the moment, it’s not going to be forever. Maybe for another year or two. It just gets better from there.

Jonathan Hafichuk: For entrepreneurs starting out or maybe people who are thinking about becoming entrepreneurs, how important is work ethic?

Charles Osuji: It’s critical. It’s critical. As an entrepreneur, you determine your time and that is a blessing and a curse at the same time. It is a blessing in the sense that you have the flexibility that you need. You can decide to take off of work at five o’clock or four o’clock, or not even go to work at all. And it’s a curse that if you do not have the discipline to manage your time, then you’re going to face the consequences. So, work ethic, very good work ethic, is not a choice, it’s a must-have for entrepreneurs, especially the early stages of their career.

Jonathan Hafichuk: Awesome. So to kind of wrap up here, where do you want to see your firm and your personal life in 10 years from now?

Charles Osuji: My firm, I think the future is too bright, I can’t even see it. Yeah, in the last one year we’ve tripled our earnings and I’m deemphasizing the profit. I’m looking more at the client experience. The client’s experiences where better people tend to refer us out to their friends, especially our past clients. Personal life, I’ll be married with kids and I’ll have more time for myself and my family. By then, in three or four years’ time, I’m looking at having another one or two locations in Calgary and I’m looking in setting up a platform, or a group of lawyers, competent lawyers, that wouldn’t really need me to be hands-on. I could manage them from a distance and I’ll be on the business side of things for the most part, instead of the practice side of things.

Jonathan Hafichuk: You have some very ambitious goals there and I’m sure you’ll hit them.

Charles Osuji: Thank you.

Jonathan Hafichuk: It’s great.

Charles Osuji: Thank you.

Jonathan Hafichuk: Where can people go to learn more about you?

Charles Osuji: You can visit our website, www.osujismith.ca. Or you can call us (403) 283-8018.

Jonathan Hafichuk: Are you active on social media at all?

Charles Osuji: Very.

Jonathan Hafichuk: Yeah?

Charles Osuji: Yes.

Jonathan Hafichuk: Where’s the best place for people to find you on there-

Charles Osuji: LinkedIn. I have a very vibrant page on LinkedIn and I’m also on Facebook as well. Likewise, my firm.

Jonathan Hafichuk: Awesome.

Charles Osuji: And generally on Google, if you type, ‘Osuji Smith lawyers’, or maybe type ‘the best lawyers in Calgary’ and you’ll probably see my firm.

Jonathan Hafichuk: Awesome, that’s great. Thank you so much for your time today, I really appreciate you taking the time to do this and taking a really long day. So, great.

Charles Osuji: Thank you, Jonathan, thanks for having me.

Jonathan Hafichuk: Appreciate it.

Charles Osuji: Thank you.

Jonathan Hafichuk: Our first sponsor is Symbol Syndication, which is a video production company that I started. We do video production and online marketing for businesses of all sizes ranging from solopreneurs to Fortune 500 companies. 

Our second sponsor is Gravity Cafe. They’ve been gracious enough to give us their space, the coffee’s awesome. They have live music three nights a week. The beer’s great. It’s an awesome place to come hang out. 

Another sponsor of the ambition project is BusinessLink. BusinessLink is Alberta’s entrepreneurial hub. They are a non-profit organization that helps people navigate the steps towards starting their own businesses. Just because you’re in business for yourself doesn’t mean you’re in business by yourself. BusinessLink’s team of in-house startup experts are there to support you all along the way. 

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