22 Aug 2019

Interview - Wairimu Karanja

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Founder and lead consultant at Wairimu & Co. in Nairobi, Kenya.

Wairimu Karanja

Tell us a bit about yourself and what attracted you to law?

I am a Kenyan lawyer practising in the areas of international energy law, corporate law and dispute risk advisory. I am founder of, and lead consultant at, Wairimu & Co. (W&Co.), a specialist firm and consultancy, based in Nairobi, which advises on African and international law and policy matters. I previously worked at Anjarwalla & Khanna and JMiles & Co., both based in Kenya.

I was seconded to Stephenson Harwood from JMiles & Co. from May to July 2015. During that time, I also sat with barristers from Essex Court Chambers and Brick Court Chambers.

I was not originally attracted to law. My dream career in high school was to be an electrical engineer. However, I excelled in humanities more than STEM, and law was the perfect choice for a university degree. Happily, I still ended up knowing more about electricity by practising energy law. Some of the most defining matters in my career include advising a large wind power producer in Africa, representing an independent power producer in an international arbitration against a state power offtaker in Africa, training power utilities in Africa on avoiding and mitigating disputes, and policy research work into cross-border energy trade.

In terms of your career choice, who has had the biggest influence?

My mum. Throughout my education, she always encouraged me to read widely and be inquisitive. Come to think of it, I was probably interested in engineering because of seeing my dad work on his construction projects. My mum, a teacher, always made sure I read books and newspapers, which encouraged my attraction towards the theoretical side of things.

In my career, I have been fortunate to have mentors who have exposed me to challenging matters and international experience. Of note are Anne Kiunuhe, my pupil master during my training days at Anjarwalla & Khanna, John Miles, my director at JMiles & Co., and during my secondment in London in 2015, Stephenson Harwood partner Kamal Shah and Roderick Cordara QC of Essex Court Chambers. At W&Co., I continue to be inspired by key professional colleagues, including Agnes Gitau at GBS Africa, and Nduta Njenga and Faye Nzioka at W&Co.

What did you learn from your secondment?

I learnt a great deal. The secondment made me realise just how much experience I had as an international lawyer, even though I was based in Africa, and it de-mystified the concept of ‘international practice’. I shadowed lawyers to the commercial courts, mediation, and even client business development engagements. It felt like real work, not a short stint out of Nairobi.

The Stephenson Harwood secondment programme includes several African lawyers being seconded at the same time, and I built lasting relationships with different African lawyers. Socially, London and the UK are very cosmopolitan, and there is lots to do, be it the museums, the theatres, the food and shopping. I enjoyed Shakespeare and African themed culture and food festivals in equal measure. As a lawyer, visiting the Inns of Court, Westminster, Middle Temple and Temple Church brought home the history of the profession. 

What is the greatest achievement, and the biggest challenge, of your career?

My greatest achievement so far was also my greatest challenge. This was making the decision in 2016 to pursue a masters in energy law and policy after almost 10 years in practice. It meant leaving my job, and my comfort zone, and taking up an academic challenge that re-shaped my career. I have since established an independent practice, and worked on matters spanning disputes advisory, corporate and projects advisory, energy policy research, legislative changes, and training and capacity building. I still have a great love for international arbitration, which I fuel by co-organising the annual East Africa International Arbitration Conference (EAIAC). This conference, of which Stephenson Harwood is a constant supporter, fosters capacity building, and regional and international collaboration.

In the next five or ten years, what do you hope to achieve?

I hope to continue playing my part in achieving Africa’s sustainable development. Most countries’ development policies take into account the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Most relevant to my practice is SDG 7, to achieve universal access to affordable and clean energy by 2030. It has been shown that over a third of Africa does not have access to electricity, and that countries with lower electricity access generally have lower GDP per capita. W&Co. aims to contribute substantively to the improvement of legislation, policies, institutions and legal advice.

Name one person who inspires you, and why?

My mum, obviously :). But seriously, in terms of the legal profession, I would say Justice Joyce Aluoch from Kenya. She is very inspiring, adaptable, and not afraid to risk it all for what she believes in. Justice Aluoch had been a Kenyan High Court and Court of Appeal Judge for over 15 years, when she was appointed as a Justice of the International Criminal Court (ICC) at the Hague in 2009. At the time of her departure from the ICC in 2017, she was the first female Vice President of the ICC. She has received Kenyan head of state commendations, and in 2018 was the first African recipient of the Fletcher Awards. Despite her experience and accolades, Justice Aluoch made a huge career shift from the Judiciary to learn about arbitration and mediation, and is now an accredited mediator and member of CIArb Kenya. That, to me, defines adaptability and humility in the legal profession. 

What advice would you give to aspiring lawyers?

Be open-minded. Be open to change, to people, to new experiences, and to pursuing your dreams no matter your age or experience. The law is not boring, rigid or stagnant. It is ever changing to adapt to changes in our world. Technology and automation is not only affecting industries and manufacturing, it is also affecting the legal profession. This, coupled with new areas of law and global connectivity, does not spell doom for lawyers, it spells unlimited opportunity.

Given Kenya’s growth in the last 5 years, where do you see the most opportunities for the legal industry?

Technology and new areas of law that will emerge alongside Kenya’s development trajectory.

How do you think the legal profession will develop in the next 10 years?

In Kenya and Africa, certainly in embracing technology, interconnection and collaboration among regional firms and with foreign firms. Irrespective of the model or collaboration, the curve of economic development and change in Africa demands a need for specialisation and collaboration among different professionals.

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