Mark Edwards: Barclays Bank (Africa Legal)

Mark Edwards, general counsel of Barclays’ African network, is starting to develop a southern hemisphere air. Although his accent is still distinctly English, his tan is an obvious clue to a home in warmer climes. And talk of helicopter flying and horse-riding gives the picture of someone more suited to an outdoor lifestyle than your average Londoner.

But it is not any particular affinity with folk from the southern hemisphere that led to Edwards’ outdoor adventures in South Africa. It is just that the man seems unable to resist a challenge.

Edwards has worked for Barclays Africa, based in South Africa, since 2002, and has held the role of general counsel Africa since 2003, but his tenure with Barclays dates back to 1996. “The position in Africa was offered to me,” he says, “and I was looking for a challenge.”

Since taking on the job in Africa he has certainly made some waves in the region. In 2003 he set up what is believed to be the first legal panel in South Africa, which took effect from 1 January 2004. Since then, formal panels have been set up in every country in the African network. “Some [panels] are more structured than others,” Edwards says, “but at the least there’s a very core group of firms in every country that we go to.” He has just finished the Egyptian panel, and is in the process of formalising the panel in Botswana.

As with any UK review, the firms had to undergo a rigorous selection process, and will be subject to a review on a regular basis to ensure they are providing the bank with the best possible service.

Edwards is also in the process of putting together an international panel for big projects in the region. “It’ll be three or four firms, a mixture of US and UK advisers,” he says.

As well as the new panels, Edwards has also set up a new structure for the legal team that focuses on two areas – Barclays’ core market (nine countries) in the region, and its developing markets. At the same time, Edwards has created an Africa legal executive, made up of seven members of the Africa legal function, who will decide the strategic direction and shape of the legal network going forward.

If that was not enough to keep Edwards busy, there have also been many deals for the team to work on. Of particular note, his team was heavily involved with the launch of Barclaycard International in South Africa in the middle of 2003. “That was a particular Barclays-related deal that we worked on,” Edwards notes. And in December the bank underwrote South Africa’s first municipal bond, valued at around R1bn (£81.9m), which was issued under new legislation introduced last year. On that deal Edwards instructed Webber Wentzel Bowens, a firm which the bank has previously dealt with on a regular basis, but which missed out on the final selection for the bank’s panel. However, Edwards states that this year’s panel is, of course, subject to change. “We’ll have the first review after a year,” he says. “And it may be that the panel will get larger as our business expands in the region.”

Indeed, Barclays has got in early on what looks set to be a burgeoning market. With that in mind, Edwards predicts that a number of international law firms may well enter the region. Currently, White & Case is the only international firm with a presence there, while Denton Wilde Sapte has a network of six affiliated firms across Africa. “I think there might be a few firms currently considering possible options there,” he says.

That said, there are certainly some differences in how the market operates. While the law itself is fairly similar to English law, in most of the continental African jurisdictions, Edwards did have to come to grips with cultural differences. “I had to understand the cultures in order to ensure what I was trying to do was achievable,” he says. And that was not just a matter of understanding one culture. “People in Ghana are very different from people in Kenya, for example,” he adds.

This is all quite impressive when you consider that the network now has a total of 12 countries. Indeed, in the 13 years since Edwards started his training contract, he has made some pretty impressive strides through the legal market. It is something of a surprise, then, to discover that he almost did not make it into the world of law at all.

“I studied history at university, largely because I had a couple of friends who’d started law at King’s and said, ‘Don’t do law, it’s awful’,” he says. But despite deciding to read history, his friends’ words of warning did little to deter Edwards’ interest in the law. “I did spend a lot of time in the law faculty, and even took part in the odd moot.”

He is not quite sure exactly what it was that sparked his interest in the area. “Nobody in the family is a lawyer,” he says, “but my best friend’s father was Lord Steyn so maybe there was some connection through him.”

After completing his history degree he then went to the College of Law in Chancery Lane and in 1991 took up a training contract with Simmons & Simmons, qualifying into the corporate finance department in 1993. It is a time that he remembers fondly and he may well have stayed longer if it had not been for a phone call from a headhunter just three years later.

“The prompt was actually a job offer with US West Coast law firm O’Melveney & Meyers,” he remembers. “That made me look outside of Simmons for the very first time.” In the end, he felt that the role at O’Melveney was possibly a little too senior for a three-year-qualified, but he decided to dip his toe into the job market pool, with a view to finding a role with a business bent.

His timing could not have been much better – a job for a corporate lawyer was in the offing at the Barclays Group’s general counsel’s office, which was then headed by Howard Trust (now legal head at Schroders). “Howard met me and the rest is history,” Edwards says. “I joined in May ’96.”

He moved through the ranks at Barclays fairly quickly, taking the role as assistant legal director in retail financial services in 1999 and then moving on to become deputy general counsel for wealth management and then private clients, as well as holding the role of general counsel for Barclays B2B.

“I used Barclays to extend my legal and managerial skills beyond anything I’d expected to do,” Edwards said. “I’d already done in a couple of years what I hoped to do over a long period. I was looking for a different challenge,” he says. “I was quite happy to stay in Barclays but was looking for something new.” Then the option of Africa came up and Edwards grabbed the opportunity with both hands.

He initially took on the role for a two-year period, and then agreed to another two years. Eventually, the plan is to have a local lawyer heading the African network. By that stage Edwards will have the Africa legal structure well and truly up and running. No doubt he’ll be starting to look for yet another challenge.
Mark Edwards
General counsel
Barclays Bank (Africa Legal)

Organisation Barclays Bank (Africa Legal)
Sector Banking
Employees (Africa) 7,500
Profit before tax £3.8bn worldwide
Legal capability (Africa) 30
General counsel Mark Edwards
Reporting to Moira Levery, general counsel, private client & international
Main law firms South Africa panel: Bowman Gilfillan, Cliffe Dekker, Mukwevho Mkhabela Adekeye Inc, Sonnenberg Hoffman Galombik. International panel: in the process of being appointed