Silverbird Group legal chief: Media wave

Nigeria’s middle class boom is driving the entertainment sector and its legal development, says Adefunke Adeyeye, legal boss at media group Silverbird

Setting up a legal team from scratch is always a challenge, but it is even tougher when the sector you are in is at the start of a potentially infinite growth curve.

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Such was the task facing Adefunke Adeyeye when she joined Nigerian media and entertainment company Silverbird in 2009. Although Silverbird had been around since 1980 it had never employed its own lawyers. Instead, legal advice had been acquired on a somewhat ad hoc basis.

Adeyeye cut her legal teeth at Nigerian firms Adepetun Caxton-Martins Agbor & Segun (ACAS) and George Etomi, but found the opportunity to do something different too good to turn down.

Do-it-yourself

The challenge was twofold. Adeyeye spent the first year learning how non-lawyers work and getting to grips with how the company operates.

silverbird

Silverbird is a diverse group, running TV and radio stations, the largest cinema chain in West Africa and leisure facilities, as well as producing beauty and talent contests. Although headquartered in Nigeria it is also present elsewhere in Africa, notably in nearby Ghana.

Adeyeye says that after a year of learning about the company and reviewing its contracts and agreements, it became clear more lawyers were needed and she began to expand the team. She also took on the role of company secretary.

With increased numbers internally, the legal team was able to handle more of its own work.

“Gradually, we developed our own contracts,” she says. “After two years we started cutting the number of firms we used.”

The company also needed to undrgo a learning process. Executives, explains Adeyeye, had to learn to trust the lawyers and get used to involving them at an early stage. Adeyeye has seen significant success in this area.

“We’re part of the decision-making process, part of the thinking process,” she says. “We’ve been able to reduce reliance on outside firms by 70 per cent.”

Outside lines

ACAS remains a go-to firm for Adeyeye and her team, but she still needs to instruct other lawyers on occasion, both in Nigeria and elsewhere. Silverbird has worked with Kenyan firm Hamilton Harrison & Matthews and Mauritius’s BLC Chambers, for example.

Online research plays a key role in the selection process, as do recommendations from others Silverbird has worked with.

“We look for their expertise,” she says. “While cost is important it is not something that’s taken into account at an early stage. We don’t pay much attention to cost at the initial stage because we can always negotiate.”

In addition to sector expertise, Adeyeye looks for government contacts and experience on significant transactions. She says this mixture of research and recommendations has paid off.

Legal catch-up

However, it is not always easy to find lawyers with the right expertise. Entertainment is a growing area in Nigeria, which has seen some of the fastest economic growth in the world in the past few years. The expanding middle class is driving demand in the sector but the legal market has not quite kept pace.

“Entertainment is fast-developing but most lawyers in African countries still have general legal practices,” Adeyeye says. “That’s  changing. We have IP experts and competition lawyers now, we have sports lawyers and entertainment lawyers. People now know entertainment law cannot be treated as general commercial law. And I wouldn’t limit it to Nigeria.”

The media-specific work the Silverbird lawyers handle includes licensing and rights acquisitions. 

Adeyeye sees infinite possibilities for the sector.

“Entertainment is a huge commodity,” she says. “We’re promoting talent. It’s easy to find talent everywhere – it’s a good place to be.”

She says companies such as Silverbird, at the forefront of this development, can also play a part in the growth of entertainment law as a sector, by contributing to training initiatives for example.

The in-house trend

Adeyeye is also part of another growing trend in Africa – the in-house market.

“Legal services are expensive,” she says. “Companies wanting to make a profit in Africa find it better to have a lawyer at the table than having to pay experts at an hourly rate outside. Even smaller companies are starting to have in-house lawyers.”

Silverbird’s team consists of three lawyers, but a fourth is joining soon, and Adeyeye sees further expansion in the pipeline. As well as heading the legal team she acts as  company secretary but does not sit on Silverbird’s board. Indeed, there are no salaried staff on the board.

She believes African lawyers now appreciate what they need to do to make the most of an in-house role.

“To be a successful in-house counsel you have to think outside the box – the only way you can succeed is if you properly understand your business,” she says.

With Silverbird on a growth trajectory and Nigeria well-positioned, Adeyeye’s experience over the past few years is likely to be crucial – and many more lawyers will be following her in-house as the African legal market continues to develop.

Adefunke Adeyeye
Silverbird Group

Position: Group head of legal department and company secretary

Reporting to: Roy Murray-Bruce, group president

Legal capability: Three

Main law firms: Adepetun Caxton-Martins Agbor & Segun, various other Nigerian firms

Neo Tsholanku, legal services general manager, Eskom

Several of Africa’s largest companies are still state-owned, including South African electricity supplier Eskom. Most electricity used in South Africa is produced by Eskom, as well as almost half the electricity used across Africa more widely.

By African standards the company has a fairly large legal team, with 23 in-house lawyers led by legal services general manager Neo Tsholanku. Eskom is also a major buyer of legal services within South Africa and more widely. Its present panel has 72 firms, from the largest South African players down to smaller outfits across the country.

Tsholanku explains it is necessary to have legal advice available in every market where the company is present. 

“It’s easier to have people deal with our issues on-site,” he says. 

He also wants to minimise the influence of the big firms and give instructions to the most appropriate outfits for the work.

That said, the nature of Eskom’s business means the internationalisation of the market is helpful; when going outside South Africa Tsholanku routinely turns to the associated firms of his panel members and says he has not been disappointed yet.

Eskom is now finalising a new panel, shifting from a three-year to a five-year cycle. The year-long review has looked at the pricing, footprint and expertise of firms, but also their willingness to invest in the development of the legal market – something Tsholanku is keen on.

“The firms are quite responsive because the government is pushing a development mandate throughout state-owned enterprises,” he points out.

This programme extends to Eskom’s use of advocates. The company requires that senior advocates bring a baby junior on board for Eskom cases – and pay the junior’s costs – to develop younger lawyers’ skills.

Tsholanku says Eskom is ahead of the market when it comes to the legal team’s involvement in business decisions, helped by a reporting line that goes through a legally qualified executive committee member.

“We find that the business will listen to us,” he concludes.