Breaking into the elite lawyers’ club

James Kamau, managing partner, Iseme, Kamau & Maema Advocates. PHOTO | COURTESY
James Kamau, managing partner, Iseme, Kamau & Maema Advocates. PHOTO | COURTESY 

It is a good time to be James Kamau. Apart from being a managing partner at Iseme, Kamau & Maema Advocates, a commercial law firm, he just got appointed chairman of DLA Piper Africa.

DLA Piper Africa is a global law firm located in 40 countries around the world —19 of them in Africa.

With over 20 years on the legal grind, Kamau, 49, is now entering into a new phase of his career and life that he says is largely defined by “meeting the promises of the people I work with.”

He met Jackson Biko in an empty lounge at their offices along 5th Ngong Avenue in Nairobi. He speaks with the stealth of a lawyer; carefully chosen words that are often interspersed with pauses.


Condense your 40s for me.

(Pause) Facing challenges with a great more confidence and wisdom. Reacting to provocation with more calm. Appreciating life with a more sense of purpose. (Pause) Approaching my business affairs with more determination and targeted focus.

And your 30s?

My 30s was a period of wealth creation and getting tested in a number of areas. It is the period that I encountered the greatest life challenge so far of losing a mother. It was also a period of finding obstacles in trying to enter the elite club of lawyers.

Elite club of lawyers. Who are these people? Is it a club of sort or is it more like professional strata?

You put it right. The business of law in Kenya is practised by three major groups. We have law firms that handle the complex corporate projects practice, we have the lawyers who handle the most significant and prominent litigation matters, and then there’s everybody else. To break into the top two segments is not easy.

After you gained entrance to this elite club was it everything you expected? Is it worth the hustle?

For sure it is. It does a number of things. Clients entrust you with the most complicated valuable work that challenges you both as a lawyer and also as a person. You start being part of the solutions that the country really needs.

Reaching this apex, of course, comes with significant financial remunerations. Has your philosophy of money and wealth changed?

No. I believe that wealth is only important if it helps you to make a difference, first of all obviously among your closest friends and family. That is where it must start. You then must be able to make a difference to the community. And then you must be able to enjoy a better standard of living that is commensurate with your wealth.

Given my upbringing, all those three elements have always been important. What has changed is just my ability to do it with a great deal more ease.

Do you still worry about money?

I certainly don’t worry about being able to meet my needs. I work very hard, but I’m not driven to just acquire more money for the sake of acquiring more money. I’ll acquire money because I have to charge for my services. I also don’t believe that one should acquire a lot of wealth to leave behind a big legacy. One should work hard, create wealth and make a difference with it now.

What’s your biggest driver or motivation now, at 49?

I’ve made promises to the people that I work with. I recruited them, talked them through the vision that I have for the firm and I feel I have a responsibility to ensure that I keep the promises that I made. That’s why I wake up.

When I ask everybody I interview, people in your calibre, about fatherhood they all say, “I wish I had spent more times with my kids’ which is also a paradox, because they are where they are because they made certain sacrifices. If you were to do something different with your teenage boys, what would that be?

I’m doing that with my 10-year-old.

Oh you have a 10-year-old?

Yes. I have three boys. (Pause) I think I’m spending a lot more time with him. I understand him more than the other two boys to be honest. I think the opportunity of doing some of the simple things such as teaching him how to ride a bike, playing chess with him, learning French together, taking him to the movies on Saturday afternoon, and being more available is really refreshing.

Realistically to be able to spare that much time during the first 15 years of your career is a challenge. But I don’t regret. I think I spent quality time with his elder brothers too.

What do you think is going to shape your 50s the most?

(Long pause) I think it’s going to be about the impact I have in my career, this leadership role that I have been given, the interaction that I’m going to have and the doors [figurative] that will be opened.

What does your wife complain the most about you?

(Chuckles) Uhm. OK. (Removes spectacles. Long pause). That I’m not easily approachable and that it takes time for me to warm up.

When were you most scared?

When my mum passed on. She was only 57. It was a very difficult moment but it was also a wake-up call because at that time I was grossly overweight and when I saw my doctor I could see that he was worried about me. I had to shed weight.

Yeah, because your picture on your profile you looked quite, uhm, heavy. Actually when you walked in I thought is this the same guy?

I tell people, I used to have presence. I was 118 kilogrammes, I lost 37 kilos. I think I’ve added a few kilos since, I should now be 87 kilos .

Looking back, how was it being 118 kilos?

The thing is you don’t notice it because, you know, nobody is going to tell you you’re overweight. I was in my 30s, so I was still quite active and I didn’t stand out so badly. So you just don’t notice it until someone, like my doctor did. Weight loss is about diet and it’s simple; eat 50 per cent of what you think should be the size of your serving.

Have you gone for your prostate examination, by the way?

(Smiles) Yes. I have always gone.

If you were to come back as somebody or something, what would that be?

(Long pause) A monk. Because of the inner peace that they are associated with, the sacrifices that they have to make, the discipline that they have to maintain, and the purpose for which the set up strikes me to be pure.