Allen & Overy (A&O) has become the first of the magic circle firms to announce its intention to open an office in Africa, with the firm scheduling a Morocco launch for the autumn.
The Casablanca office will open in September, at which time banking and corporate partner François Duquette will relocate from the firm’s Abu Dhabi office. Duquette will be joined immediately by two lateral hires from Gide Loyrette Nouel – Naciri & Associés.
Partner Yassir Ghorbal and local Casablanca partner Philippe de Richoufftz will be with A&O’s new office from the time of its launch, with the latter working out of the magic circle firm’s Paris office. Partner Hicham Naciri, who will lead the office, will join later on in the year.
The move comes just weeks after A&O launched an office in Washington DC with a three-lawyer team from O’Melveny & Myers (TheLawyer.com, 29 June).
The Casablanca office will be a hub for A&O’s Africa plans, combining with the firm’s France, Middle East and Spain platforms, as well as with China, whose need for natural resources is driving a lot of projects work in Africa.
“We have a big Africa practice,” said A&O global managing partner Wim Dejonghe. He added that, along with South Africa, Morocco is one of the most obvious choices for international firms looking for footholds in the continent.
“I think we’re probably in a better position to do a move like this compared with our competitors because we have a strong Middle East practice,” he said. “We’re also strong in Paris and in Spain, and both are big investors in the region.”
Cross-border work is expected to provide the bulk of the office’s revenue. Since 2009 A&O has completed £12bn worth of Africa-related M&A deals. The firm expects its new office to grow to around 25 lawyers by 2012.
“The people we’ve joined up with have a very strong presence in the region, so we expect some of their colleagues will want to join us too,” said Dejonghe.
By all accounts A&O has scored a coup by taking a team from Gide Loyrette Nouel – Naciri & Associés. It is widely regarded as the premier firm in the region, with Naciri seen as one of North Africa’s top M&A lawyers.
Meanwhile, following the raid by A&O, the French firm has reaffirmed its commitment to North Africa. Despite the loss of Naciri, Gide managing partner Christophe Eck said the firm would rebuild the office.
Gide equity partner Julien David remains in the Casablanca office, but it is unclear how many of the 30 lawyers in Casablanca will stay with the firm.
“We’ll rebuild and replace the people,” stressed Eck. “We’ll retain a large part of the market.”
That said, Eck added that Gide was more likely to look beyond Moroccan firms for new lawyers and would aim to hire Moroccans or French lawyers working at international firms.
He said the rest of Gide’s North Africa offices had been relatively quiet during recent months, partly as a result of the Arab Spring sweeping the region this year.
“Morocco’s been a bit less active than last year, but not dramatically,” he commented.
Earlier this year Eversheds also made a play in Morocco (TheLawyer.com, 28 March). A former associate at the firm, Mohamed Oulkhouir, has established his own practice in Tangiers that will cooperate with the UK firm. Eversheds Africa co-chair Boris Martor said the firm would trial the agreement for six months and if it went well Eversheds would open under its own brand in Casablanca.