The overseas advantage

Ravinder Chahal reports on the experience of the few South African firms that have opted to build an international presence

Although much attention has recently been focused on domestic activity, several South African firms have chosen to cast their nets further afield. There have been three South African firms operating in London since the late 1980s – Maitland & Co, Bowman Gilfillan Hayman Godfrey and Mallinick Ress Richman & Closenburg.

Of the three, the most complicated set up is that of Maitland & Co, which is the name Webber Wentzel Bowens and Shepstone & Wylie trade under in joint association.

Webbers also has a wider European presence, with its first office in Luxembourg set up in 1976, as well as offices in Paris, Geneva and the Isle of Man. The London office has 10 Webbers partners and one Shepstones partner.

Stuart Mathews, a Webbers partner, explains that the main thrust in London is commercial work for major blue-chip clients while the Shepstone partner does mainly maritime work.

Webbers' Paris office also does mainly corporate and commercial work while the other offices work on international tax-planning for high net worth individuals and companies.

Its Isle of Man base gives the firm an opportunity to do trust and offshore work plus succession and estate planning work for high net worth individuals. An interesting spin-off from these clients for the London office is work on private art collections, including sales and acquisitions and negotiating the loan of collections to galleries. For example, the firm recently handled the loan and the subsequent sale of a collection to the Spanish government.

David Anderson, a partner with Johannesburg firm Bowman Gilfillan's London office, says a presence in the capital has had a number of benefits for the firm. As well as being able to pick up referral work from UK and US firms, it allows the practice to place individual lawyers with major firms for training purposes.

Further, if there are any problems he is available for face-to-face meetings within an hour which he says is preferable to dealing with someone n the other side of the world.

Anderson insists that the office is not simply a marketing tool for the firm but a profit centre in its own right.

“People say it is immaterial if an overseas office loses money, but the bottom line is if we were not making money we would not still be here,” he explains. “We not only generate our own work, we send a lot of work back to South Africa.”

Cape Town practice Mall-inicks has had an office in London since 1989, its only overseas venture.

The office has grown from a single lawyer to the current complement of eight, five of whom are partners. Justin Hardcastle has been its managing partner for the past four years.

Although most of the eight lawyers have English law degrees, they are all South African nationals and only one is dual-qualified. Hardcastle says that as well as a lack of time to requalify, there are no obvious benefits in doing so because of the type of work undertaken by the office.

The client profile is different from the firm's Cape Town base – most of its work is carried out for listed South African multinationals.

The London office's top two clients are the South African pay-TV company MIH, which had a stake in Nethold which was recently sold to the French broadcaster Canal+, and I&J, a massive South Africa-based fishing and food distribution company.

Hardcastle says Mallinicks opened in London because “we saw our clients with international needs”. He adds that the office is exceptionally busy.

Other South African firms have not followed suit. Hardcastle puts this down to a failure to target the overseas part of their domestic clients' work.

Other practices manage to get around the problem of competing with the enormous resources of the US and UK top-tier firms by servicing a lot of international work from South Africa. The time-zone is broadly in-line with London and lawyers at the top South African firms spend much of their time overseas, servicing multinationals without any overseas base.

Hardcastle adds that many of the republic's firms have solid relations with UK practices, which make them a valuable source of referral work. This work exists without the expense of a London office and turning up in the City may put it in jeopardy.