DWS’s global gamble

As big ideas go, it’s a pretty big one: Denton Wilde Sapte (DWS) is targeting Africa as it attempts to remedy the woeful economic performance of its finance practice during the past few years.

Back at the start of this review managing partner Howard Morris was talking tough about “jettisoning” underperforming parts of the practice. Now he’s being a little bit more diplomatic.

“There are plans to develop international projects rather than domestic PFI and PPP work. We’ll still be in the market, but the emphasis for the future will be international, not domestic,” Morris says.

Hmmm, let’s ponder that. “We will still be in the market…”Don’t be surprised if we see a few more departures during the next few months. After all, if you’re in domestic projects and weren’t actually kicked out, there seems little incentive to stick around. DLA Piper should be preparing another raid or two.

The firm’s finance practice has been squeezed from above and below during recent years. It doesn’t have the brand to compete with the magic circle and it doesn’t have the price to compete with regional firms such as DLA Piper.

So Morris has looked at the firm’s strengths and is backing them. Despite numerous departures in the Middle East, the region remains a strength, as do Central and Eastern Europe and Africa.

The competition in the Middle East is fierce, but DWS has a history there and its contacts in Africa go deeper than most firms’. But can it make it pay?Headline rates may be low, especially when advising governments, but the firm’s leverage in Africa is almost double the firmwide total. The firm will hope to keep those lawyers busy on large projects for long periods of time. It could also negotiate blended rates, with its allies on the ground picking up smaller shares than DWS.

It almost seems like the perfect USP. But while DWS has less competition in Africa, there are fewer deals to go round, they tend to be smaller and it’s obviously a volatile and risky region.

And can DWS go global, without really going global? The firm hopes to target Middle Eastern clients investing in the region, but who’s the biggest investor in Africa? China. And DWS quit that part of the world three years ago.