Ilfa promotes its firsts foremost

At this year’s International Lawyers for Africa (Ilfa) gala ­dinner, held in the Law Society’s common room on Chancery Lane, the theme was firsts.

It was the first year that Edwin Coe, Nabarro and Slaughter and May had been involved in the ­project; it was the first year that a ­corporation – drinks maker ­Diageo – helped sponsor a candidate (together with Slaughters); and it was the first year that a ­candidate was sent to another continent as part of the programme.

The growth shows that Ilfa, which said goodbye to its fourth class of candidates at the dinner on 25 November, has caught the imagination of a legal profession that is serious about Africa as an emerging market.

“Since the financial crisis the world’s view of Africa – one of strife, famine and war – has started to change,” says Sandi Okoro, group general counsel at Baring Asset Management. “People see that the continent has weathered the crisis and benefits from a large, highly educated population.”

Indeed, for firms looking for ties in the continent, the scheme’s rewards may outweigh its costs. Not that lawyers should let that get in the way of the warm, fuzzy feeling one gets from doing pro bono projects – it is still a good cause.

The social responsibility initiative, the brainchild of SJ Berwin partner Tim Taylor, pairs lawyers from Africa with UK law firms and chambers for three-month secondments from late August to late November. ­Candidates are exposed to high-value deal work and receive ­training in international law and key legal practice skills.

“Delivery of development goals in Africa depends on a dialogue that takes place in international institutions such as the UN, World Bank, IMF [International Monetary Fund] and WTO [World Trade Organisation] and its implementation in the African states,” says Taylor. “You can’t make good laws without good lawyers and you can’t make good laws effective laws without effective lawyers. Ilfa will set out to find the best talent and match that talent to the knowhow to make it work for Africa.”

In total 13 law firms, as well as the Commercial Bar Association, sponsored 14 Ilfa candidates. As well as the three firms mentioned, Allen & Overy, Berwin Leighton Paisner, Clifford Chance, Eversheds, Herbert Smith, Hogan Lovells, SJ Berwin, SNR Denton and White & Case each sponsored a candidate. Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer sponsored two, freeing up one – Ilfa’s first Tunisian candidate Sabrine Makkes – to spend some time in the firm’s Dubai office.

“We believe the Ilfa model is easily transferable and hope it will expand beyond the UK,” says Toyin Ojo, Ilfa operations director. “We’re contemplating organising Ilfa Dubai and focusing on ­countries in the Maghreb.”

Continuing the theme of firsts, this was also the year that Ilfa introduced the Ambassador’s Shield to the gala dinner. The shield is awarded to a candidate who will become the programme’s ambassador for a year. No clue was given as to the criteria for picking an ambassador – even Taylor was none the wiser – although the winner, Namibia’s Gokulan Thambapilai, is charged with encouraging greater communication between Ilfa ­alumni – an essential part of the programme’s development.

The shield commemorates three Ilfa supporters who have passed away: Lord Bingham of Cornhill; SJ Berwin partner Catherine ­Bailey; and Nutifafa Klutse-Woanyah, the 2006 Ghanaian candidate from the first class, who died in a car crash.

Baroness Scotland was on hand to present certificates of completion to the candidates. She did so after a speech by the Honourable Mrs Justice Dobbs, the first non-white lawyer to be made a High Court judge.

Then, as if there were not enough firsts already, Okoro tried to shoehorn another in, claiming this could also have been the first year an African nation had won the World Cup, were it not for “cheating Uruguayans”.

A bit far-fetched perhaps, but nevertheless the one-Africa spirit on show throughout the World Cup could clearly be seen at Ilfa (minus the vuvuzelas thankfully).

“I stand before you not as a proud Nigerian, but a proud African and representative of Ilfa,” said Eversheds secondee Gbenga Ojuawo, giving the closing speech. “Africa’s on an upward trajectory; the rule of law is an integral part of this and we’re part of that ­ascendancy. Watch out for us – we’ll make you proud.”