Limber up for the Africa play-offs

Catrin Griffiths

When The Lawyer was researching The Africa Elite, one of the questions we asked the continent’s top independent practices was which international firms they worked with or they would like to work with. The magic circle and Wall Street giants such as Latham and Sherman got plenty of respect, but what came out very clearly was that the global business firms, such as Baker & McKenzie, Norton Rose Fulbright and DLA Piper, were also seen in the same category.

This tells us something very interesting. The global business firms have been making all the running in sub-Saharan Africa. With the exception of Linklaters, which has had a decades-long interest in South Africa and now has a tie-up with Webber Wentzel, the magic circle and white-shoe firms see Africa and other emerging markets as fundamentally dilutive. It means their commitment to the region has been half-hearted in comparison. (We will be publishing more on Northern Africa at a later date, where the Francophone firms are naturally much better represented.)

With the magic circle firms physically absent, DLA Piper and Dentons have quietly built up exceptionally strong relationships. Dentons, which has the widest geographical spread of respondent firms, has 16 offices or associations in sub-Sahara and within the Africa elite has five non-exclusive alliance partners in Mauritius, Tanzania, Kenya, Ghana and South Africa. DLA Piper has four firms within the Africa elite, whose geographical emphasis is further south: Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and South Africa. It has 13 sub-Saharan offices or associations in total.

The other major investor in relationships, though, is Portuguese firm Miranda Correia Amendoeira & Associados. It has snapped up three firms in our African elite, from Angola, Mozambique and Gabon, but its 10-strong alliance numbers firms from Lusophone and Francophone countries.

Law firms looking to make contacts and in-house counsel wondering which local firm to instruct will find our research rewarding. Certainly, those in private practice who are looking to build up African referrals will see there is much to play for, particularly in West Africa – the region with the fewest formal or informal ties with Western practices. But throughout the continent, remarkably few African independents are tied in with UK, US or Portuguese firms. For the moment, the favoured cross-border model is the cluster, in the shape of Lex Africa or Lex Mundi. In 10 years’ time, I predict, alliances will be more formal and less multilateral. Now is the time to build relationships.