Meet Nigerian Lawyer, Piriye Anga
Piriye Anga, an international lawyer from Nigeria, recently commuted a client’s life sentence, changing the course of one man’s life. Ayiba’s Sanet Oberholzer spoke to this inspirational woman about her career as a lawyer, her work as board member of Ara Africa – a grassroots volunteer initiative which aims to combat blood cancers and sickle cell anaemia in Africa – and what it is that fuels her passion in life.
What motivated you to study law and what was your law school experience like?
I still think it’s funny that I ended up becoming a lawyer, because I remember growing up I wanted to be an obstetrician. I applied to college as a biology major. My father is a lawyer and my mother is a doctor, and both of them inspire me greatly, but ultimately I think I gravitated more naturally towards the law. I am a problem solver by nature, and I like to think that at our best, that’s what lawyers do, we solve problems.
Looking back, I had a charmed law school experience. Penn Law is great because there is something for everyone; students are encouraged to create their own path and study subjects that they are passionate about. The environment is extremely collegial so you don’t feel as if you’re competing with anyone for anything, and that’s rare in a law school. The University of Pennsylvania takes a cross-disciplinary approach to education, so in addition to exploring new areas of the law, I took classes at the Graduate School of Education and Perelman School of Medicine. The entire experience pushed me to think more critically about the problems our world faces, and the different ways we can solve them; I loved it.
What are the most challenging decisions you have had to make to get to this point in your career?
So far, career decisions have always been, and continue to be, the most challenging for me. I imagine that’s the case for any young person. They are especially challenging in the global environment we live in. For me, during and after law school, my decision-making process mostly had to do with where I wanted to start my career – both geographically and in terms of the types of organizations I was targeting. I asked myself: “Where should I live? The United States, Nigeria, or elsewhere? Do I want to work at a law firm, public interest organization, or international organization?” That said, I think the beauty of life is that it’s never too late to ask those sorts of questions. I read somewhere once, “If you don’t like where you are, move. You are not a tree.” So to me, there are very few career-related decisions you can make as a young person that are fatal; if you fail you can always bounce back. It’s a very comforting thought.
What has been your experience working in a large law firm? How can you describe the work environment and impact on your career development?
I am convinced that working at a big firm is the best thing I could have done right out of law school. I have been fortunate enough to live and work in two of the biggest legal markets in the country – New York and Washington, DC – learning from some of the best lawyers in the country. It has been a great experience, one that has taught me discipline, critical thinking, and accountability. Much personal and professional growth has come from it, and I am very grateful for that.
Apart from your focus on commercial litigation and dispute resolution, you also take on civil and human rights pro bono matters. What is your main motivation behind this?
My parents have always talked to me and my brothers about the importance of having an impact, as opposed to simply making money or being famous (neither of which are necessarily bad things). But yes, having an impact and having a good name. The world is tragically full of people whose most basic of needs are not being met. This stood out to me, even as a child. I have always been something of an idealist in that I do not like being told that anything is impossible, including “saving the world.” Now as I grew older, the idealism was tempered with a healthy dose of realism, and I began to realize the socio-economic implications behind everything that goes on around us. That said, for me, one of the greatest benefits of being a lawyer is that in many ways you have the ability to impact policy and to use that policy to help people meet whatever their needs are. Lawyers and lawmakers have a lot of influence in that regard. So that’s the real reason I do so much pro bono, and why I became a lawyer to begin with – I wanted to be a part of a profession where I would have the tools and potential to make a large impact on people’s lives.
I have read that you’re interested in women’s empowerment initiatives, transitional justice, and international development policy. How do these interests impact the work you undertake?
My professional and personal interests vary and are constantly evolving, especially in the development and human rights space. I think that you can be the most effective in your work when you truly care about what you do and for me, as a Nigerian woman, two of the things I care most deeply about are . . . Nigeria and women! So in undertaking any type of project, I think about how it can serve the purpose of Africa, of Nigeria, and of women everywhere. If a project has anything to do with one or all of those things, you will usually find me there. It is important to me that women are doing well not only in basic ways, but at the highest levels of society. For example, I am just as interested in child and maternal health as I am in seeing female faces on boards, in partnerships, and in politics.
I can imagine it’s no small feat getting a client’s life sentence commuted but this is something you managed to do recently. Can you tell me more about this specific case?
I worked with the Clemency Project (an initiative started during the Obama administration), to draft a petition to President Obama advocating for a reduction in my client’s sentence. My client had been sentenced to life in prison for a non-violent offense, and it was my job to establish that, among other factors, he would have been given a much shorter sentence if he were to be sentenced today. We submitted the petition in November 2016 and on January 19, 2017 on his last day in office, President Obama granted the petition and brought my client’s sentence from life down to twenty years. I must say, that was one of the more thrilling cases that I have worked on because I got to actually see the course of someone’s life change in a matter of months. Imagine thinking every day that you are going to be imprisoned for the rest of your life and one day getting a call saying you won’t be anymore. It was one of the greatest honours of my life so far to be able to work on that case, and eventually make that phone call.
I’m trying to understand the immense emotion that must’ve come after both you and your client found out that this decision had been reached. How did you both feel after the success of the case?
I actually didn’t get to see my client because he’s at a facility in Wisconsin but as I mentioned, I did get to call him. I think he was just stunned, really. He wrote me the most amazing letter saying thank you, about a week later. In the letter, he told me about his plans for when he is released – he wants to go back to his hometown, reunite with his children, and counsel young children not to make similar mistakes. It was a truly heart-warming letter. You never really know what people’s plans are and it was nice to see that his involve giving back to society.
You’re also a board member of Ara Africa. Can you tell me more about what it is this organisation does and why you feel so passionate about the cause?
Ara is an international grassroots volunteer initiative. Our mission is to combat blood cancers and sickle cell anaemia in Africa by recruiting bone marrow donors and promoting cancer control advocacy. There is a very serious shortage of registered bone marrow donors on the African continent. What that means for people who have blood cancers and other blood diseases like sickle cell anaemia is that, if they need a bone marrow transplant, they have very few people to reach out to or to choose from. Our goal is to make sure that people do not die needlessly because there is no one to donate bone marrow to them. Thankfully, registering as a donor is a fairly straightforward process.
What is your strategy for recruiting 30,000 donors by 2018 and how can someone get involved?
It is a very daunting goal but one that we would like to meet and, if possible exceed. We have held a couple of donor registration drives in Nigeria and we plan to hold more all around the continent, so it is a very exciting time. You could register as a donor and go your entire life without ever getting a call saying you’re a match. On the other hand, if you ever do get a call, it is so worthwhile to donate because you could literally be saving a life. The process of becoming a donor is very quick and very painless. I would encourage anyone who may be interested to visit our website or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What advice can you offer aspiring African lawyers?
My advice is to always follow the path that you are the most passionate about because that is where you will produce the best work. There is much to be done. We live in a world and on a continent that has a lot of legal issues that are going to impact generations to come, so engagement is important. It is not enough to sit back and hope that everything turns out okay. It’s very important to be engaged – whether that is in the political process, in the policy making process, in the criminal defence process, or in the economy development process. Whatever the case may be, whatever lights your heart on fire, be tireless in your pursuit of that path. Whether you just became a lawyer, have been a lawyer for years and years, or are thinking about becoming a lawyer, figure out what sets your soul on fire, and go after it wholeheartedly.