Insight into South Africa with Victoria Jackson

18 Jul 16:00 by Laurence Simons


The South African market is facing turbulent times, the recent firing of a well-liked Finance Minister, coupled with the country's poor economic performance has seen South Africa dip back into recession for the second time in ten years. 

Not all Doom and Gloom

However, even in the most testing of times, there will always be a demand for lawyers. The market is essentially a game of two halves. On one side, junior lawyers are needed to fill roles in the commerce and industry sectors. 

On the other, there is demand for very senior lawyers and as a result, Senior Counsel level are feeling stifled by the lack of progression opportunities both internally and in the wider market.


Challenges that can be Overcome

One of the main challenges clients face when hiring lawyers is the stringent BBEEE criteria which vastly reduces the pool of candidates available. Many multinational clients are all competing for the same skill set which is in short supply; specifically training in a "Big 5" firm combined with broad-based, multijurisdictional in-house experience.

With increasing cost of living and the devaluation of the Rand, salary has never been so important to South African lawyers. If a candidate does consider moving then they will want to command a large salary increase to mitigate any risk.

Last year, the salary increase was on average 30% and at the senior end LTIPs were becoming increasingly more common as a way to retain lawyers.  When US companies offer attractive compensation packages to attract the brightest lawyers, we see candidates moving between positions to secure a better salary.


Being Part of the Region

Setting aside the internal South African challenges, many South African in-house legal teams form part of a wider Middle East and Africa legal structure.  This wider market is impacted by slow rising oil price, lack of investor confidence and regional instability, alongside sanctions on Qatar.

These factors have a direct correlation with external legal spend, in-house headcount and budget. Clients are struggling to get the headcount they need to support their lean teams due to poor performance in the wider MEA hub. The pressure is now on HQ to maintain the status quo and where headcount is approved, clients find themselves working with an uncompetitive budget.


What Candidates are Looking for

Candidates are looking for stability, security and a portfolio of challenging and multijurisdictional work. They look at the breadth of work on offer; roles with a transactional element are especially appealing - offering a lawyer experience that traditional in-house roles usually don’t.

Responsibility for emerging or less developed markets is often viewed as a key professional growth indicator and will be attractive to many candidates.

The ability to make an impact on a business through a strategic input is critical, especially at the mid to senior level, therefore a seat on the Leadership Team is one of the most important considerations a candidate will have when making a move.


What Employers are Looking for

Clients want a sustainable hire - they need to know that whoever they hire is going to dedicate themselves to the business.

Compliance experience is viewed upon favourably due to the high-risk markets that Legal teams in South Africa manage, together with the fact that despite being a regional hub, teams are small so dual skill sets are seen as a cost reduction.


Senior Hires

It will come as no surprise that candidates who fulfil the BBEEE criteria and have honed their technical skills in one of the country's top firms are usually at the top of the list. Clients look for resilient lawyers who are able to provide independent and commercial advice to senior management. 

Clients are also placing an emphasis on hiring lawyers with a high degree of emotional intelligence as this is generally a good indicator of a person's leadership abilities.


Junior Hires

At the junior end, clients usually look for a generalist, with excellent drafting skills and the ability to quickly integrate into the business, forge relationships with key functions and quickly spot major risk areas.

With budgets tighter than ever, we will see more streamlining of legal teams and as such, we expect to see larger, pan-African roles arise but in smaller teams. This will inevitably increase the demand for expert regulatory and compliance lawyers. At the senior end, there is a correlation between candidates with an MBA becoming either the shortlisted or the appointed candidate.


If you’re looking to make a move, hire or learn more about the South African legal market, Victoria is always available. You can email her at ihdubai@laurencesimons.com or call her on +971 4 374 8331