My firm has a wide international practice. I have spent much of the past 30 years of my career working in sub-Saharan Africa in international dispute resolution – either in arbitration or in local or London tribunals.
International work has been a hugely enjoyable part of my career – it gives lawyers the chance to learn about other jurisdictions, meet colleagues from around the world and broaden our understanding of the law and its practice in different circumstances.
Since I first became involved with the Law Society many years ago I have worked with staff and volunteers in its international work - particularly in Africa, chairing the international committee and now as vice president. The Law Society has been supporting members to work across Africa for several years.
Commercial interest in Africa is growing – although many lawyers will acknowledge this started from a low base – and broadly speaking, almost all the top 50 international city law firms do some work in the continent. Whilst we talk of Africa generally it is a hugely diverse continent of 54 very different nations.
There is a huge appetite from African lawyers and firms to raise their international profile and connect with international firms – although this is tempered by concern about the impact international firms may have on local business.
We host visiting delegations and put them in touch with UK firms. We also put together meetings (now virtual) of solicitors working in or in connection with Africa.
Our Africa roundtables show members and firms are keen to engage with Africa. Whilst international firms are concerned primarily with international work, and may not create pressure on local firms, it is important that there is knowledge transfer to ensure sustainability and promote local capabilities.
Unfortunately, much of the Law Society’s 2020 international work – including our first English and Nigerian law day in Nigeria – has been postponed due to Covid-19 but last month, we were able to hold a virtual roundtable with top 50 firm partners and Emma Wade-Smith, Her Majesty’s Trade Commissioner for Africa.
At this roundtable, we were keen to discuss what participants and their firms see as the challenges, opportunities and trends in Africa and if they experienced any barriers to market access.
It was also an opportunity to exchange best working practices and explore how the Law Society can best support firms working in Africa and widen market access.
Africa is one of the Department for International Trade’s key areas and in recent years helped to secure £2.5 billion of exports from the UK to Africa – with an increase of 7% in traded goods last year alone.
Legal business is an important part of this success and helps to facilitate further trade and investment by facilitating trade of all kinds.
The Covid-19 pandemic has so far led to higher than usual demand for legal services across Africa as companies have sought support from UK-based law firms in all areas of their business.
During the roundtables, members discussed operating in different countries. South Africa was identified as one of the continent’s most open countries for international lawyers to practice and many lawyers operate in association with local firms.
There are many areas for potential growth including in trade, infrastructure, insolvency and restructuring, technology and data handling work. In Ghana, there has been a growth in the energy sector and growing investment in infrastructure –creating an uplift in insurance work for UK-based firms and their Ghanaian counterparts.
Participants also reported that international lawyers can operate easily in Zambia, Ghana and Kenya and often instruct and work with local counsel.
In many countries, there remains some tension between the international market and domestic practitioners – there needs to be more trust between local and international firms to ensure that each finds its place within the market and that there is encouragement for domestic lawyers to develop skills and knowledge.
Visas can be a problem for temporary work for both lawyers and clients. This issue was encountered in Nigeria and participants said there needed to be greater reciprocity with visas to increase trade between the two countries.
A significant change in recent years has been the fact that foreign firms have to partner with local Nigerian firms and this has seen a massive growth in the private sector work.
So unlike before where foreign investment and trade generally focused on state-led infrastructure project, there has now been a huge expansion of the private sector in Nigeria – although some noted it can be difficult to partner with local firms due to the Bar’s regulations. Nigeria has a highly sophisticated international legal offering and there are lessons to be learnt on both sides.
Participants were also keen to engage with Ethiopia – as it is the second-most populous country with an economy that is growing rapidly – but found the legal profession itself quite closed as Ethiopian lawyers can only operate as a sole-practitioners with employees under the law.
The roundtable showcased the many opportunities for English and Welsh solicitors in Africa and vice versa and highlighted some of the areas on which the international team will need to focus – such as networking opportunities and strengthening connections with local bars.
Strengthening connections between the Law Society and local bars will help to build trust and open up market access on both sides.
This insight will help us broaden market access and remove some of the barriers to operating in the continent in the years to come.
David Greene is Law Society vice president