How NJ Ayuk Turned Being a Lawyer Into Being Social Engineer

While William Shakespeare may have joked that lawyers have fingers that “dream on fees,” NJ Ayuk sees his profession differently. He adheres to the belief that attorneys can — and should — be agents of change. 

As the founder of the international firm Centurion Law Group, Ayuk has worked in the major leagues of the legal profession for years. And he attributes his rise to his education, his upbringing, and his work ethic — and an idea that struck him early on. 

Ayuk believed a lawyer could be either “a social parasite … [or a] social engineer.” And he had no intention of being a parasite.

NJ Ayuk: ‘I Am an African Capitalist’

Like many recent law school graduates, NJ Ayuk launched his career in a burst of idealistic hope. After witnessing the poverty of his native Cameroon and studying at the foot of Dr. Ronald Waters, one of the pioneers of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, Ayuk was primed for a life of righting societal wrongs and pushing countries in the right direction. 

Along the way, his views evolved. “I became a capitalist,” he said with a smile. “But I am an African capitalist, and I think an African capitalist is very different because we have to be able to combine a social sense and African sense and use our most given resources to empower our people.” He never abandoned his core beliefs, though. Instead of deciding to pursue money at the expense of his ideals, he found a way to do good while doing well. 

He’s the executive chairman of the African Energy Chamber, where he tirelessly advocates for bringing electricity to the more than 900 million Africans who currently lack access to clean cooking technologies. It also shines in his books. His latest, A Just Transition: Making Energy Poverty History with an Energy Mix, shares his prescription for how to move Africa toward renewable sources of energy while allowing the people to benefit from the continent’s rich reserves of fossil fuels. 

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But it doesn’t end there. 

NJ Ayuk’s Long Shot

The clearest example of how NJ Ayuk has taken the profession that Charles Dickens called “an ass” and turned it into a fulcrum of societal change comes from how he operates the Centurion Law Group. 

After founding the firm, Ayuk and his partners found immediate success. They wanted to expand but realized there was a shortage of qualified young lawyers who could deliver new blood and ideas into their business. 

Instead of going to Europe and the U.S. to poach talent, they decided to take a different route to expanding the team. They wanted African lawyers with a different set of credentials, so they opted to invest their money into the next generation of lawyers. 

“We did the most difficult thing, which everybody thought was crazy,” NJ Ayuk recalled. “We had a big deal and won a great case and had earned a lot of money from it. We took that money and invested 80% of it in sending 25 young lawyers from Africa to the United States and Europe. We just felt if we are going to go for long term, we’re going to have to pick these really smart and talented people and try it.”

It was the kind of long shot that was exceedingly rare. But it was a risk NJ Ayuk was willing to take. 

“I personally pushed for that because without education, I wouldn’t be where I am, and I also thought, ‘These are really smart people. We need to be able to try this,’” he said. “Now, it was a gamble, but it paid off. We had a group of young talented people that came back, and they really drove the firm up, and we did different things, and we were all better off for it.”

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Not only did Centurion’s investment in education help the firm, but it began to transform the landscape of the African legal system. Suddenly, there was a conduit from Africa through prestigious law schools across the globe, allowing students to dream bigger than ever before and setting the stage for some truly remarkable happenings. 

“We went from being a regular law firm to getting up to 180 lawyers and business advisers, and then decided to list into the stock exchange to get everybody be part of what we’re building,” NJ Ayuk said. “I think that you have to take a bet, but you also have to have the strategy, and you have to really work hard at it. You have to just have that religious ethic of getting up and never giving up and really believing in people, and that’s what worked for us.” 

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