Out of Africa

SNR Denton’s Africa practice co-chair has been seconded to Dubai to help beef up the firm’s presence in the Middle East

In brief

It was more than a year ago that SNR Denton announced it was relocating its Africa practice co-head Paul Bugingo from London to Dubai. Here he discusses his role in the region.

Paul Bugingo
Paul Bugingo

SNR Denton’s Middle East practice has suffered its fair share of reorganisations lately. The firm rejigged its regional management structure at the end of 2011 after its Kuwait head, David Pfeiffer (who has since joined Curtis, Mallet-Prevost, Colt & Mosle), left. Earlier this year Leigh Hall, the newly appointed Middle East managing partner, left for personal reasons.

But the firm has made one canny move. It has seconded Paul Bugingo, its Africa practice co-chair, to Dubai to make sure lawyers in the region are prepared to exploit links with Africa. And as he found, it is not just Middle East companies that are using the UAE as a hub from which to invest in Africa but those from Asia Pacific, too.

It was Bugingo’s idea to move to Dubai as SNR Denton’s presence in the region grew, and he saw the UAE as an increasingly vital hub for African investment.

“I told Matt (Jones – SNR Denton’s chief executive) that we needed to send someone to integrate the Middle East and Asia Pacific offices [with the firm’s Africa practice] by shifting one of the key members of the team,” says Bugingo. “Chiefly me.”

Bugingo is the heart and soul of SNR Denton’s Africa practice, which was launched from London in 1998, before legacy firm Denton Wilde Sapte merged with US firm Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal. The group operates in Africa through a network of 20 tie-ups with local firms. The firm’s Botswana affiliate, Minchin & Kelly, decided a South African firm fitted its focus better than SNR Denton’s Pan-African model but Bugingo says it is still his preferred firm in the country.

He says his move to Dubai wasn’t really a shift but more of a broadening of the firm’s focus.

“We had predominantly focused the Africa practice out of London because that’s where we started it,” he says. “Back then, a major part of my role was to integrate our own lawyers in London [with the Africa practice] so I got them familiar with the various markets in Africa and met a lot of their clients to advise them on what’s going on in Africa. I also acted as a link between the firm and our associate offices in Africa.”

As the firm grew internationally, Bugingo realised it would benefit from him doing the same job in Dubai. The firm had been acting for Middle East telecoms company Etisalat, which was increasingly targeting Africa, as was Hilton (which SNR Denton mostly advises from its Muscat office) and Al Jazeera.

“But as well as being a hub for trade between the Middle East and Africa, [the UAE] is also a hub for Asia Pacific companies investing in Africa,” says Bugingo. “There are Korean and Japanese companies running their Africa business out of Abu Dhabi, like [Japanese company] Sumitomo, for instance. That’s the kind of thing you don’t really find out about until you get on the ground here.”

As well as making sure the firm’s Middle East lawyers are poised to make the most of Africa, Bugingo has been jetting off to do the same in the US, Russia (where the firm advises Lukoil on its Africa portfolio) and, as the office bulks up, Paris.

“I’m now in my second year of secondment with one year left and after this, I’ll be back in London,” he adds. “There isn’t another secondment planned, that I know of, but a year is a long time.”

UAE in the News

11 July 2012: Addleshaw Goddard announced that it was set to launch its long-awaited Dubai office in September after hiring a partner from Trowers & Hamlins. Trowers’ construction head Andrew Greaves will join Addleshaw Goddard as a partner in its engineering, projects and construction group – which sits within the firm’s litigation division – and will head the new Dubai office, which is set to open on 2 September with a focus on projects and dispute resolution. He will be joined by two associates hired from Al Tamimi and Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer.

12 June 2012: Bird & Bird appointed Al Jazeera Network’s chief legal officer Osama Abu-Dehays as a partner to strengthen its media and sports practice in the Middle East. Abu-Dehays will split his time between the firm’s Qatar and UAE offices, focusing on Doha, Abu Dhabi and Dubai, but with wider responsibilities covering the Middle East and North Africa regions.

7 November 2011: Lawyers attending an International Bar Association (IBA) conference in Dubai slammed the event after several discussion sessions were altered and one even ditched at the last minute. Following intervention from the UAE security forces, which said material in several of the sessions was of an “inflammatory and dangerous nature”, conference titles had to be changed to reflect an “international community”. The amended topics included the death penalty, migrant workers, human rights-related issues and women and Islam. The title of a session on the latter topic was changed from ‘Women and Islam – challenges and opportunities’ to ‘Women and the law – challenges and opportunities’. It was later scrapped altogether.