Postcard from…  Johannesburg

I must confess that Johannesburg took me by surprise when I started working here a couple of years ago.

I knew a little of the history of the place as a gold mining town and that Jo’burg is now the economic powerhouse of Africa. But I didn’t expect to find a city with a vibrancy and buzz akin to New York or Hong Kong. And I certainly didn’t expect to fall in love with the continent, its people and the enormous African sky.

Of course, I knew that South Africans take their sport very seriously, whether it is watching or taking part. And that they are pretty darned good at it. And that the city – indeed the whole country – is busy preparing for what promises to be a spectacular FIFA World Cup that is now just a year away. But I never expected that the mere mention of my beloved Arsenal would make me so many friends from every walk of life and country in the region.

Unlike the laid back feel of Cape Town, Johannesburg is very focused on business. Working here is an intense experience. Lawyers here work hard – like London, New York, or anywhere else. But I still haven’t got used to lawyers and secretaries being at their desks by 7.30 in the morning – and that may be after a 6am breakfast meeting with a client. Luckily, the giant African sun rises early.

I spend much of my working life on the road, as I always have. And while I previously found myself on a plane to Lisbon, Bangkok or Karachi, I now regularly have client meetings in Lusaka (Zambia), Maputo (Mozambique), Windhoek (Namibia), or further afield. Working with a laptop and an often dodgy internet connection presents its challenges, but at the same time it’s great to experience countries and cultures that most only get to read about in books or see on the news.

While Johannesburg has not been completely immune to the world economic crisis, business continues to grow apace and new construction is everywhere – I have never seen so many cranes in whatever direction you cast your eye.

Inevitably, the economic growth in recent years has brought its issues. The roads are packed during rush hour and until the power projects many of us are working on are up and running load shedding (power outages) will continue. On one occasion last year, a client and I worked our way through a draft power purchase agreement in our office by torch light. On another, I walked down 17 flights of stairs in my building not to find myself in reception as I had expected but in the kitchen of a nearby Indian restaurant – I’m not sure who was more surprised, but now whenever I go to The Raj they ask why I’ve come in by the more conventional entrance!

Our office is in the bustling Sandton business district, next to the Convention Centre on one side and Nelson Mandela Square on the other. Many other offices are also based in Sandton, although some are still in the original central business district, which is slowly but successfully being regenerated with museums, theatres, restaurants and the SAB World of Beer, a must-see attraction for any visitor.

Dewey & LeBoeuf’s office is incredibly diverse, with lawyers from South Africa, the UK, the US, and Zimbabwe. There are very few international law firms with an office in Johannesburg and we see a very diverse range of work and clients, with a particular emphasis on power and other energy projects, mining and telecommunications. Geographically, we work within South Africa and throughout the continent, and our clients come from Africa and throughout the world. We’re particularly seeing an increasing number of Chinese clients as Chinese companies continue to take advantage of the many investment and project opportunities here.

I don’t currently have a car here and stay in a small apartment a short walk away from the office – there is not much in the way of public transport here although the Gautrain high speed train will partly address that when it opens next year. From my apartment window, I can see many of Johannesburg’s eight million trees including the amazing Jacarandas, which bloom in September and October, South Africa’s spring season.

Weekends here are inevitably at least partly spent in the office working towards a deadline or travelling to or from meetings in neighbouring countries. But there is plenty to see and do when one can steal some precious time. Katzy’s in Rosebank has fantastic live music on Thursday evenings and attracts a crowd as diverse as the Rainbow Nation itself. On Friday evenings, The Baron is known affectionately as lawyer central and if that doesn’t put you off, the 70s and 80s music might well do!

If Arsenal is not playing, a Sunday afternoon might consist of a walk at Zoo Lake or in the Botanical Gardens, followed by sundowners (a great African tradition) and fresh Mozambiquan prawns from Moyo or Nuno’s in Melville. Since I’ve been here, as well as some wonderful steaks, I have sampled springbok, kudu, kingklip and warthog – all delicious – but I’ve not yet acquired a taste for mopani worms, a local favourite.

There is also plenty of opportunity to watch live sport – I’ve seen the Springboks beat the Wallabies at the legendary Ellis Park and the South African cricket team take on Australia at the Wanderers ground. And for fellow football fans, we have the Confederation Cup this June and the World Cup just a year later.

What amazes many visitors is that Johannesburg has so many neighbourhoods, each with its own style and vibe. Many are full of sidewalk cafes and restaurants perfect for relaxing in the African sun for Sunday lunch or for meetings friends and colleagues in the evening. Then it’s back to the office or on a plane again for the working week ahead.

As I say, Johannesburg took me by surprise. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Scott Brodsky is an energy and projects partner in the Johannesburg office of Dewey & LeBoeuf.