Interview with Funmi Roberts FCIArb

Funmi Roberts FCIArb established Funmi Roberts & Co. in 1989, quickly growing the firm from a single room Chambers in Ibadan, Nigeria, into an internationally recognised law firm with Chambers in Ibadan and Lagos. Funmi Roberts & Co. specialises in commercial law, offering legal and  Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) services, to corporate organisations and individuals locally and internationally.  

Funmi is a member of the Governing Board of the Oyo State Multidoor Courthouse, Lagos Court of Arbitration. She is a member of the Nigerian Bar Association and has served as a member of the NEC (National Executive Council) - the highest decision-making body of that umbrella organisation for lawyers in Nigeria. She contributes heavily to the legal and dispute resolution sectors as a member of the International Bar Association, Arbitral Women, Maritime Arbitrators Association of Nigeria, Society for Corporate Governance - Nigeria, Kigali International Arbitration Centre Panel of International Arbitrators (KIAC), International Association of Restructuring, Insolvency & Bankruptcy Professionals, Business Recovery and Insolvency Practitioners of Nigeria (BRIPAN) Institute of Directors, and the International Chamber of Commerce Commission on Arbitration & ADR. Funmi is a Ciarb tutor, an Accredited Mediator and a member of the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution’s (CEDR) International Mediator Panel. 

Why did you choose to go into law?  

As I navigated through my formative years, my career aspirations shifted from desiring to be a doctor to contemplating a career as a nurse. That was until I had a personal encounter with the law, and an aunt of mine, who later became a judge of the Court of Appeal, assumed the role of my mentor. She guided me through the process of pursuing a legal career. Do I have any regrets? Looking back on this transformative journey, none whatsoever. 

What made you then interested in going into dispute resolution?   

Soon after I completed Nigeria’s mandatory year of national service, I started my career as an assistant lecturer in the Faculty of Law of the premier university in Nigeria, driven by my ambition to become a professor of law. For diverse reasons, including dissatisfaction with the conditions of service, I decided to go into private practice. Despite several attempts, I encountered challenges in securing a position at a law firm, primarily due to my lack of practical experience at that time. I then approached a law firm co-owned by a friend, who agreed to bring me on board on the condition that I was willing to work for free. 

I took up the employment, worked diligently, and did not earn a salary for three years. It was financially challenging, to say the least, as I had two children then (I now have four!), but I was fortunate to have a very supportive husband who stood by me throughout. After three years, I set up Funmi Roberts & Co. and, gratifyingly, it has grown to be one of Nigeria's most prominent and largest female-owned law firms. 

Over those three years, I learned a lot, especially in my role as a litigation lawyer. Being a new experience, I found litigation fascinating until our court system's many challenges manifested themselves. Throughout that period, I did not complete a single case from start to finish. The courts were burgeoning with cases, and the judges were overworked. I often spent extended hours in court, waiting for my case to be called, only for the case to be adjourned, sometimes for several months. 

I probably would have remained a litigation lawyer if not for a pivotal incident. I received a call from one of the greatest jurists in Nigeria, Late Hon. Justice Kayode Eso, CON (Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria), who introduced me to arbitration. I was immediately captivated. I served as his Registrar/Arbitral Secretary in all the arbitral matters he undertook, and I learned arbitration at the feet of a master. Inspired by this experience, I joined Ciarb Nigeria Branch, took the necessary examinations, and today I am a Fellow of Ciarb and Chartered Arbitrator. 

My incursion into mediation was also purely fortuitous. I was part of the delegation of African women in the political space invited by United States Information Service (USIS) to tour the United States of America more than 30 years ago. We visited a court in Washington D.C., where we were introduced to the multi-door concept, where mediation stood out as the preferred dispute resolution process. Intrigued, I read up on the subject. I then joined the Negotiation and Conflict Management Group[1], which worked with the Lagos State Government to establish the first multi-door courthouse in Nigeria - the Lagos Multi-Door Courthouse. 

Today, the bulk of what I do is arbitration and mediation, with the occasional adjudication. 

What have we learnt as a sector since you started your career?  

Compared to where we were about 30 years ago when I was first exposed to private dispute resolution, much has been done to catalyse the growth of private dispute resolution and build a fiery enthusiasm across the board. This is no mean feat, especially in emerging economies, to which many African nations belong. 

As well as being advocates of private dispute resolution, we have learned that we are and must be seen as thought leaders and advocates of improved access to justice.  

As a sector, we have dealt with issues that evolve with the changing times, and this trend continues. For example, dealing with issues of corruption in arbitration has now taken centre stage, when a few years ago it was not in the consciousness of dispute resolution practitioners. 

What do we still need to work on as a sector?  

There is a need for more collaboration between the different institutes that offer dispute resolution services because there is strength in numbers. An article in the November issue of Ciarb’s eSolver underscores this point. The article describes the collaborative efforts of three UK-based commercial mediation organisations, namely the Civil Mediation Council (CMC), the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution (CEDR) and Ciarb, to overturn the court’s decision in Halsey v. Milton Keynes General NHS Trust. They intervened in the case of Churchill v Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council by making written representation to the Court of Appeal to overturn the Halsey decision, which is considered inimical to the growth of mediation in England and Wales as Halsey decided that it is a breach of article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees the right to fair trial, to compel parties to mediate their dispute. I emphasised the same point whilst delivering the Keynote Address at this year’s Annual Conference of the Institute of Conciliators and Mediators (ICMC) held in Abuja on 28 November 2023. 

I congratulate CMC, CEDR and Ciarb on this intervention, the success of which was announced just a few weeks ago. The UK Court of Appeal ruled that the courts can lawfully stay proceedings or order the parties to engage in non-court-based dispute resolution processes, which include mediation. 

How has the 2023 enactment of the AMA in Nigeria changed your role and the types of cases you receive?  

Recently, I shared a LinkedIn post highlighting the considerable time I had dedicated to preparing presentations I made at various workshops, conferences, and in-house seminars for corporate entities and different sectors etc, to which I had been invited to speak on the AMA. 

The ratification of the Singapore Convention by Nigeria is also a significant milestone for us. We had hoped to ratify it as part of the provisions of the AMA. Still, the Federal Ministry of Justice (the Ministry) preferred to take the route taken with other treaties and conventions signed by Nigeria. We therefore had to remove it from the AMA. True to its promise, the Ministry ensured that the Federal Executive Council, under the immediate past President, approved the ratification at its last meeting, and this current government completed the ratification process by depositing the instrument of ratification at the UN office on 27 November 2023. 

How important is it for you as a mediator to understand developments in other parts of the dispute resolution sector? 

The dispute resolution space keeps evolving and, on a regular basis, the status quo is being kicked to the curb side. A notable shift is evident as the different private dispute resolution mechanisms are no longer treated in silos, and multi-tier dispute resolution clauses from the non-adversarial to the adversarial are now the new normal. It is, therefore, critical for transaction advisors and dispute resolution experts to have good knowledge about the different mechanisms and be able to advise on them. Furthermore, even multi-tier dispute resolution clauses are no longer the flavour of the times, not with US-based organisations advocating for and developing protocols for concurrent mediation and arbitration proceedings. Therefore, as professionals in this field, we must never succumb to laxity and must keep abreast of contemporary best practices. 

Any parting words of advice for people starting out their careers in dispute resolution? 

In the initial stages of your journey in the dispute resolution sector, it is crucial to be steadfast and tenacious, even when you feel the sea is washing the ground from under your feet. The private dispute resolution space is inflectable, presenting either challenges that may break you down or opportunities that can propel you to breakthroughs. Keep your true north focused not solely on financial gains but also on gaining valuable experience and learning best practices. Additionally, your training and experience must be multi-dimensional, as this will give you a competitive advantage. 

Consider making your mark in the developmental ecosystem of dispute resolution by volunteering to serve on committees, thought leadership groups and working groups. While volunteering, you will be exposed to different people and deal with different cultural sensitivities. This experience will help you develop an adaptive and agile mindset, essential qualities that will stand you in good stead in an environment where technicalities are kept to a minimum, especially in mediation, a process often described as human. 

I don’t recall who said your network is your net worth, but I agree with this sentiment. You must work on growing and sustaining a powerful network. Our work is largely dependent on a network of favours, and this is what helps successful people navigate their way through challenges and rough patches.  

I would end by reiterating that by making your journey less about immediate financial gains and more about holistic growth, you position yourself for long-term success in the evolving and multifaceted field of private dispute resolution. 

Further Ciarb resources: 

Develop your knowledge and skills in international arbitration. 

Develop your knowledge and skills in mediation. 

[1] Who we are - NCMG - Negotiation & Conflict Management Group ( 


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