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18 February 2013
A scheme whereby African lawyers are seconded to big City firms is paying off for all concerned. James Swift gets the lowdown from those involved
One reading of Shakespeare’s line, “the first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers”, from Henry VI is that lawyers stand between civilisation and chaos - they are indispensable in maintaining and developing society.
Of course, no one would like to hear that interpretation more than lawyers themselves. But there are parts of the world where the presence of a good solicitor has a much greater impact on the prosperity of nations.
None more so than in Africa, where, as International Lawyers for Africa (Ilfa) reflects on the third year of its secondment programme, most will agree that the development of the continent’s legal market is in good hands.
The Ilfa programme
The Ilfa programme, with support from the Commercial Bar Association, consists of 10 City firms playing host to African lawyers on secondment.
“These guys are seriously bright,” says an impressed partner at one of the host firms. “I would have hired the candidate working with me in a second, but I’m pretty sure they have rules against poaching.”
The programme is the brainchild of SJ Berwin partner Tim Taylor.
“I first had the idea in January 2006, and everyone I asked pretty much just said yes straight away. It’s been like launching a boat - it’s got its own momentum,” says Taylor.
This year candidates were chosen from 10 African states, but competition is tough. According to coordinator Toyin Ojo, Ilfa had to turn away four countries due to a lack of places.
In Cameroon the in-country selection team even ran TV commercials looking for lawyers. And all this in a recession year.
“We’ve had firms pull out for a year due to the downturn, but hopefully they’ll be back next year,” says Taylor. “One of the firms tried to pull out, but a banking client of theirs said, ‘If you want to remain on our panel then you’d better not’. That’s what we’re trying to get with this project - a bit of peer pressure.”
The law firms participating in the programme are: Allen & Overy (A&O), Berwin Leighton Paisner (BLP), Clifford Chance, Denton Wilde Sapte, Eversheds, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Herbert Smith, Lovells, SJ Berwin and White & Case.
Ayodeli Oni, SJ Berwin candidate from Nigeria
“In Africa children tend to want to be a doctor, lawyer or an engineer, and I was no different,” says Oni. “But then I discovered I had a phobia of blood and midway through high school that my maths wasn’t great. So I chose to be a lawyer and really enjoy it.”
Oni is an associate at full-service Nigerian firm Templars Barristers & Solicitors in Lagos. He is a member of the energy and projects group. Before joining the firm he was part of the in-house team at Nigerian energy company Negris Group.
Oni is probably the only candidate to have been selected twice by the programme. He first applied after being told about it by a colleague, an alumnus of Ilfa, and gained acceptance. He had to reject the offer, though, as he needed to complete his masters (an LLM in energy law). He could not defer and had to reapply the following year and was once again accepted.
“I really wanted to see international practice, different from the one in Africa,” says Oni, explaining his motivations for applying to the programme. “And I really wanted a name like SJ Berwin, Clifford Chance or Freshfields on my CV.
“Also, my friend who had already been on the programme knew so much more than before she had gone.
“The highlight for me has working with SJ Berwin on the development of energy markets internationally and in Nigeria, because I felt I could really help and add value.
“My plan is to become one of the foremost energy lawyers in the world, so that when they make lists of the leading practitioners it couldn’t be complete without me.”
Kusigani Alidi, Dentons candidate from Botswana
“I wanted to become a lawyer because I was interested in human rights. I wanted to be someone who could help people that were downtrodden,” says Alidi. “I still like human rights law, but it doesn’t pay the bills as well as corporate does, although I’m still interested in pursuing international law with some commercial aspects.”
Alidi is an attorney at Collins Newman & Co in Gaborone, Botswana. She has been qualified for three years and specialises in corporate, labour and banking law, as well as general litigation.
“I got a notice from the Law Society of Botswana about Ilfa and applied,” she says. “At the interview they asked me questions, testing my knowledge of corporate law, and more general questions too, for instance what I thought about the death penalty. I don’t believe in it, even though it’s enforced in my country.
“Apart from just coming to London to experience being in a big city, it’s also been great for skills transfers.
“In Botswana I’m in a small office and sometimes it’s hard to get involved in all the aspects of corporate transactions because I might have to be in court or do something else. But through this scheme I could just focus on the transactions and get a real feel for what it’s all about.
“The level of specialisation is one of the main differences between London and Botswana. At home, if you’re practising corporate law, then you could be doing a range of things; and if you’re litigating you’ll litigate on everything from employment to contractual disputes. But here people just focus on one thing.”
Jennifer Mbaluto, Clifford Chance candidate from Kenya
“Without overstating things, the Ilfa secondment has been one of the best experiences I’ve had in my life,” says Mbaluto. “I was working at what I consider to be the top law firm in the world and the people there were as friendly and helpful as anybody in a modest law firm. And, of course, the quality of work that comes out of Clifford Chance, and having the opportunity to learn from the partners, was something that money can’t buy.”
Mbaluto qualified two years ago and has been practising at Nairobi firm Hamilton Harrison & Matthews, where she focuses on transactional work, namely corporate, commercial conveyancing and capital markets law.
“The most obvious difference between Kenyan law firms and a firm such as Clifford Chance is the size. Clifford Chance is a huge international firm and how the firm is run and how the work is done is quite different from what I’m used to. People work in teams more here. In Kenya you don’t have that luxury; you might have, at most, three people working on a deal, but here you can have 20.
“Also, with London being the financial centre of the world, work is more important than anything else. People spend more of their life here working, and that’s something that strikes me as something quite different.
“In the future I want to carry on with transactional work. I also see myself becoming a partner. Transactional work is something I’ve always enjoyed more than litigation, but also I think it’s the way to go in Kenya because it’s an area of law that’s growing, and when the time comes I want to be able to offer my experience and help.”
Rachel Mwanje Musoke, Freshfields candidate from Uganda
“I’d recommend the Ilfa programme to anybody,” says Musoke to an alumna of the 2008 programme. “It builds your confidence so much more than anything else. I don’t have a masters degree, but for me the secondment to Freshfields was my masters because I learnt so much - in fact, it was better than a masters.
“A few months after I returned from London I was made partner, and I’m sure it had a lot to do with the programme. And just last month I was named as a leading lawyer in the IFLR1000 [International Financial Law Review].”
Musoke, who has been practising for seven years, is a corporate partner at MMAKS Advocates in Kampala, one of the largest firms in Uganda. She was chosen to give the closing speech of thanks at the Ilfa gala dinner hosted by the Law Society of England and Wales in November 2008, which she describes as a personal highlight.
“The biggest thing I’ve taken with me from the training is the confidence to handle the big transactions. We deal with international clients here at MMAKS and the transaction can be quite big, so it can be scary and sometimes you can get cold feet. But having been at Freshfields, getting the training that I did and seeing that there are even bigger transactions out there, it makes you feel a lot better.
“Working at Freshfields was amazing. I worked with an M&A partner and the deals I was involved with were so much bigger - cross-border, multijurisdictional work - and on top of that we had the training programmes, which were really beneficial in terms of working with international clients and seeing what they expect from a lawyer. The speed at which everything is done in the City is so impressive. A lawyer gets a request and has to give some sort of response in half an hour.”
Michael Kanu, White & Case candidate from Sierra Leone
“When I was younger I went through some difficult times and starting law was as a means of helping people,” says Kanu, who used to work at the Special Court for Sierra Leone, which was set up to try those responsible for the worst violations of international humanitarian law. “I’m in banking law now, but I still see my work as helping and developmental because we’re helping make the economy stronger and are working with a lot of small and medium-sized enterprises.”
Kanu has been a lawyer for 12 months. Before being called to the Sierra Leone bar and spending seven months at the Special Court he worked at human rights organisation the Society for Democratic Initiatives. He is now a lawyer at MS Turay & Associates in Freetown, Sierra Leone.
“I started practising human rights law because in Freetown there was so much to do in international human rights law,” relates Kanu. “But after so much time the issues that became topical were in the banking sector, because at the time there was an influx of international banks and lawyers were needed to assist in this work.
“Getting involved with Ilfa was all about going to the world’s financial centre and experiencing how things were done. I was amazed at how specialised the lawyers are - everyone spends so much time doing one thing that their knowledge becomes unbeatable. I’d prefer to practise like that more, but it will take time for Sierra Leone’s market to develop to that level.
“Another thing I noticed when at White & Case was the amount of further investment in personnel and the amount of training even experienced lawyers have to do. It’s the sort of thing that’s sometimes missing from our firms.”