Diamond in the rough

As firms continue to chase revenues around the globe, there appears to be no consensus on which region holds the golden ticket to a lifetime’s supply of cash-cow work.

Magic circle rivals Allen & Overy and Clifford Chance are hedging their bets on Australia and the Asian launchpad they think it will be. Norton Rose is taking a more holistic approach, hoping that ­Australian, Canadian and South African outposts will take it to law firm nirvana by delivering a white-shoe merger partner.

But Africa remains a largely untapped resource. Which is why the addition of 10 firms to SNR ­Denton’s African alliance makes sense. Okay, so the relationships are non-exclusive and the firm has chosen to partner firms whose best years are probably yet to come, but gaining a presence in 40 per cent of the African nations is a canny move.

Immature legal markets and volatile regimes have kept all but the boldest firms out of Africa.

But although looking at the continent as a single entity is as wrongheaded as supposing England and the UK are one and the same, the investment case for Africa is sound: Ghana has begun pumping oil for the first time; The Economist reckons Ethiopia, Mozambique, Tanzania, Congo, Ghana, Zambia and Nigeria will rank in the 10 fastest-growing economies of the next five years; and the region is awash with Chinese cash.

While firms are tripping over themselves to show Chinese clients that they can offer on-the-ground legal services, their appetite to do the same for Africa is weak. Three years ago Hogan Lovells ­legacy firm Lovells thought it had cracked the ­forever-revenues code when it set up its 10-way Sino-Global Legal Alliance. An African version might have been a smarter move.

There is much to learn about Africa’s legal ­markets, and any firm looking to tap in to their expected growth could have a long wait before their investments come good. But thanks to legacy firm Denton Wilde Sapte building its network over the past decade, SNR Denton has already shown it’s in Africa for the long haul. If it can make its relationships in the continent work in a revenue-generating sense, the firm may just have found the Holy Grail.

margaret.taylor@thelawyer.com; www.twitter.com/thelawyermag