Accessibility Links

Are there more jobs for lawyers in southern Africa?

Posted by: Laurence Simons 28/11/12

The resource-rich nature of South Africa appears to be attracting international law firms, with a number of different offices opening up as they embrace the globalisation of international business and hope to compete with their counterparts in the region.

While it's tempting to speculate that law firms, like teenage girls, abhor a vacuum and feel a strong need to bunch together and talk about how pretty they look, the reality is that investing in African offices has been seen as a shrewd business move for some years now.

Bowman Gilfillan corporate head Ezra Davids told the Lawyer: "It was always bound to happen, it's part and parcel of globalisation. It'll pose a challenge to independents like us, but you can't stop it - it's happening."

Last month, Canada's Fasken Martineau confirmed a merger with Johannesburg-based Bell Dewar, while a new Tanzania office was launched by international firm Norton Rose.

Slaughter and May also made an effort to get involved in the potentially lucrative sub-Saharan market by taking part in a major symposium with a number of independent African firms, according to the news provider.

Mining and natural resources have always been a part of South Africa's appeal to foreign investors, and the international law firms entering this market find that much of the work they are doing relates to outbound domestic investment.

Webber Wentzel senior partner David Lancaster explained: "We're a relatively mature market even though we're still a developing economy. Many South African companies are looking at moving into other African countries."

He pointed out that growth is currently slowing down in the developed world, meaning businesses looking for a potentially profitable and exciting experience have been forced to look elsewhere, a trend that has also been marked by increased activity in Asian markets.

It's important to shy away from talking about Africa as the next hotspot for the expansion of legal practices, however, given that the crucial thing to remember about the continent is that it's home to over one billion people and is breathtakingly diverse.

The significance of not treating the world's second biggest continent like a London suburb that just happens to be particularly hard to reach on the Tube was stressed by Patrick Colegrave, a counsel at offshore firm Harneys.

He suggested to the Lawyer that it is impossible to do business in Africa as if it is a single place, pointing out that any law firm hoping to set up an office there must operate on either a regional or country-by-country basis if they wish to work successfully with local firms.

While it's possible that some law firms employ the measure used by the Boundary Commission to delineate the Irish border in 1925 (closing their eyes and throwing darts at a map), it seems their expansion into southern Africa is based on more solid ground.