Allen & Overy (A&O) is understood to be preparing for a launch in South Africa, with the hire of a team from local firm Bowman Gilfillan led by banking head Lionel Shawe.
A&O’s managing partner David Morley and former banking chair Michael Duncan have both visited Johannesburg in recent weeks. Duncan is said by local sources to be relocating to South Africa to head up the venture.
Shawe’s expertise covers mining, aircraft, acquisition and leveraged finance transactions as well as property finance, securitisation, capital markets and debt restructuring.
A&O would be the first of the UK magic circle to have its own presence on the ground in South Africa although rival Linklaters signed up South African firm Webber Wentzel as an ally at the end of 2012 (3 December 2012).
The South African legal market has seen an unprecedented amount of movement in the last few years, partly kickstarted by legacy Norton Rose’s merger with Deneys Reitz in (15 November 2010), although White & Case’s 1995 launch was the first foreign move. DLA Piper followed in 2005 when it tied up with Cliffe Dekker (now Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr).
Baker & McKenzie launched in Johannesburg in 2012, benefitting from the collapse of Dewey & LeBoeuf (29 May 2012). Later that year Canadian firm Fasken Martineau merged with 76-lawyer Bell Dewar (22 October 2012), and more recently the same firm signed up to a South African alliance with Simmons & Simmons (1 August 2014).
There have also been a number of senior lateral hires and expansion through bolt-ons in recent months. Bowman Gilfillan and Eversheds both opened Durban offices (16 July 2014, 2 June 2014) while Baker & McKenzie added a competition practice (5 August 2014) and Hogan Lovells (4 July 2014) and Werksmans (13 March 2014) have made lateral hires.
Bowman Gilfillan said in a statement: “Lionel Shawe is leaving the firm by mutual agreement. We do not know his plans. Our banking & finance team remains very strong and capable and we continue to retain our longstanding client relationships within the banking community in South Africa.
”Some other partners have left the firm in the last couple of months but we are not aware what their plans are.”
In a statement A&O said: “Africa is a strategically important region and one that we continue to monitor very closely for further growth opportunities. We are regularly approached by interested parties across the continent but we have nothing to announce at this time.”
For more on the South Africa legal market, see the Africa Elite 2014.