Big Opportunities and Challenges for Big Law in Africa

At the end of June, DLA Piper acquired firms in Senegal and Tunisia, boosting its presence in Africa to 19 countries. It’s a sign, according to Bloomberg Law, that Big Law is starting to see the potential for legal work in the region.

Several African countries could use the help. Statistics from the Law Society of South Africa paint a bleak picture, with a per capita population of lawyers of 1 to about 2240 people. The situation is even more dire in Zambia, where a University of Pennsylvania law school study found that there are only 731 lawyers in private practice among a population of nearly 13 million.

Corporate law firms have spent the last decade growing Africa-based practices. DLA Piper and Norton Rose Fulbright, for example, have won contracts navigating disputes around the mining of iron and aluminum ore in Guinea. Both firms have outposts in South Africa, which boasts the highest concentration of Big Law firms.

For its part, DLA Piper wants to avoid a traditional “fly in and fly out” model by investing in training academies and local lawyers. “These are medium to long term investments,” Andrew Darwin, partner and managing director of the firm’s developing markets, told Bloomberg, “but we want strong and reliable expertise on the ground.”

That kind of expertise requires a deep understanding of the local cultural and political landscape. Witney Schneidman, a U.S. State Department veteran under the Clinton administration, serves as an international adviser on Africa for Covington and Burling LLP. With 40 years of experience in Africa under his belt, Schneidman knows his way around that complex terrain. “In many respects, it’s best to stay out of the courts,” he said. Political maneuvering on the ground is often a better course of action.

And then there’s infrastructure. “Africa needs 95 billion dollars a year to address this infrastructure deficit. As these resources become available, there’s a tremendous need for law firms to do the different contracts and other aspects that are required for power purchase agreements in the power sector,” Schneidman said.

Jean-Claude Petilon, co-head of McDermott Will & Emery’s Africa practice, agrees. “The need to have electricity in your home and drinking water is very demanding,” he said. “There are a lot of infrastructure projects for drinking water and energy happening now.”

Africa’s diversity can present several challenges, as legal systems vary from region to region. Expertise in English law may be required for one project, while an understanding of Sharia law will be necessary for another. However, as Petilon explains, many of the legal systems in post-colonial African countries are based upon the country that colonized them. “Lawyers in Francophone countries are members of the local bar and the Paris bar. These historic relationships are important.”

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