Size and scale of London firms is a world away from Tanzania

Edward Samwel, a legal counsel with Barclays Bank Tanzania, spent six months with a magic circle firm in London through International Lawyers for Africa. As part of our Postcards From… series, he describes his experience:

I left my native Tanzania to take up a three-month placement in a London law firm with no little trepidation. I ­expected to face a lot of challenges.

I had secured this placement after a number of testing interviews locally, as well as screenings by the directors of International Lawyers for Africa. From a local perspective, I was seen as a representative of my country for the benefit of the Law Society, young professionals and my colleagues at Barclays Bank Tanzania.

I felt a considerable weight of expectation and responsibility and began to think of ways to maximise my ability to learn and deliver results to my sponsor law firm, while thinking of what we could learn from and take back to Tanzania.

My placement was at a magic circle law firm, where I was placed in the leveraged finance and corporate departments. I was immediately aware of the differences in culture. There is so much that is done in London that does not happen in Tanzania. The first thing I noticed was the level of support new joiners received. Compared to our on-the-job training, the support in London was fantastic.

Before I joined my current employer, I used to work in a medium-sized law firm in Tanzania, accommodating only three partners, three legal officers and four support staff. As far as I know, no top law firm in Tanzania employs more than 50 people – including support staff. As you can imagine, the size of my sponsor law firm’s offices took me by complete ­surprise. The complex is massive, accommodating in excess of 2,000 people.

What I found even more fascinating was the fact that the firm provided facilities similar to a small town – such as a health and fitness centre, dental clinic, a bar and a big restaurant.
The organisation of the firm was ­another huge difference. Firms in ­London are split into specific departments and, depending on the area of practice, may be divided into even ­smaller groups. This would never work in ­Tanzania because of the nature of clients and economic factors.

For this reason, a lawyer in Tanzania is expected to handle every instruction coming in from any field of law, be it labour, corporate, banking or litigation. In other words, we are all general ­practitioners. The disadvantage of this, of course, is the lack of specialisation, which does have an impact on the level of professional services offered.

Another thing that I thought was ­useful – not just in terms of the level of professional services offered to clients, but also as a means of adding value to its lawyers – was the fact that many top law firms in London offer a range of training and presentations on various areas of the law to its lawyers. This includes an update on recent ­developments in legislation. More importantly, I noticed that such firms offer presentations on a regular basis to their clients, which I think is a good way of cementing client relationships.

I was also rather surprised to learn that law firms in London actually have a separate budget purely for client entertainment. Such entertainment varies depending on the client, but ranges from providing lunch to offering clients tickets to top sporting events. Although bigger law firms in Tanzania do entertain clients, it is not something that is budgeted for to this extent.

One thing I thought was worth ­taking back was the aspect of project management. I noticed that this was a very well-defined process in London law firms. It begins from the moment the client’s instructions are received and ends at the conclusion of the case. The project manager, usually a partner, is the key contact during the ­transaction. As part of the process, associates and trainees are given their tasks and participate in the project. Their roles are significant and valuable. Such involvement by associates and trainees gives them confidence to grow and excel in their roles. I would like to see this type of project management introduced in law firms in Tanzania.

It goes without saying that law firms in London have responded positively to corporate social responsibility. I ­witnessed a number of projects initiated by my sponsor law firm designed to raise money for communities. Pro bono activities are on the top of the list of law firms’ agendas in London. Of course, such initiatives do not go unnoticed or unrewarded, with various awards ­presented each year to the winners of different categories.

If nothing else, my placement was a very useful and informative experience. Sadly, it is not yet economically feasible to adapt all the useful practices I picked up in London – but I live in hope.