A recent series of virtual events aimed to strengthen links between African and UK law firms by highlighting the untapped opportunities Africa presents.

HMG trade commissioner Emma Wade-Smith explained that the Department for International Trade has a clear purpose to champion economic growth and job creation.

‘The UK is committed to being Africa’s business partner of choice,’ she said, referencing the inaugural UK-Africa Investment Summit hosted by the UK government in January. ‘The legal services sector is intrinsic to economic growth. The impact of Covid raises the centrality of legal services to rebuilding the economy.’

The representatives of leading firms taking part in the summit demonstrate a joint interest in ‘strengthening and expanding’ legal services work between the UK and Africa, she added, by sharing market insight and opportunities for collaboration.

Aluko & Oyebode chairman Gbenga Oyebode explained that the continent’s recent population growth presents an opportunity. ‘There is a realisation of the emergence of African law firms whose capabilities are on a par with other global practices, and the opportunities that represents,’ he said. ‘International firms are starting to appear in Africa, and our lawyers are starting to participate in these transactions.’

Brexit and greater investment in Africa has meant that international law firms are showing an increasing interest. ‘Clearly the UK will have to deal more with African countries following Brexit, and Africa will have to find new ways of dealing with the EU,’ said David Ofosu-Dorte of Ghanaian firm A&B David.

Several UK firms have made inroads. ‘It’s the best place to look for the next phase of international growth,’ said Ashurst partner Matthew Wood, ‘particularly the rising jurisdictions in east Africa. We have a focus on Rwanda.’

But it is not just UK firms that are starting to explore the continent, regional African firms are growing outside traditional borders. ‘Growth in investment in Africa is key to growth in South Africa,’ said Alan Keep of South African firm Bowmans. ‘Clients are investing across the continent and that has led us to grow our firm across borders.

‘The African growth story continues, taking two to three steps forward, and then there’s a pause and a step back. But we are optimistic that the post-Covid world will provide plenty of work for good lawyers, with scope for both regional and international collaboration.

‘The introduction of international firms is good for the market.’

Similarities and differences

‘In English-speaking west Africa, common law is the name of the game, presenting an opportunity for collaboration with other common law jurisdictions,’ Oyebode said.

Commonalities in legal systems also exist in east Africa. Daniel Ngumy of Kenyan firm Anjarwalla & Khanna explained that Kenya’s Companies Act is almost ‘word for word borrowed from the UK’s Companies Act 2006’.

However, as French-speaking countries such as Morocco and Tunisia, with a civil law system similar to the French, deepen their exchange with other African countries, international firms are starting to deepen ties with the local legal market. ‘We often collaborate with international firms,’ noted Oussama Fraikech of Moroccan firm Fraikech Associés. ‘Our mandates from foreign firms represent about 40-50% of our work.’

Wood highlighted the importance of business collaboration. Ashurst is ‘less interested in opening offices on the ground, but more in forming reciprocal relationships with local law firms’, he said. ‘It’s impossible for us to have an office in every country and this model allows us to be more fleet-footed.’

Collaboration provides benefits both in terms of cost and knowledge-sharing, Oyebode said. However, it needed to be a marriage of equals, emphasised Keep. ‘Africa can be a complex place to work, and dominance of one party over another is not helpful,’ he said. ‘We don’t feel threatened by having UK law firms as our neighbours. We are capable of competing with them; it’s a win-win for all to have international clients come here.”

Frances-Yvonne Igweh, partner at City firm Spencer West, agreed that adopting a collaborative mindset is key: ‘We have successful relationships with firms across Africa, particularly west and north Africa. We are all on the same page in terms of what we want to achieve for the client. It’s about recognising that being a UK firm doesn’t give you the automatic right to take a dominant role.’

Cost transparency plays an important role in fostering good relationships, said Kash Balogun of Keystone Law: ‘It’s important to make clear the fee structure and scope of work early on. Trust is built up that way.’

Judy Muigai of Iseme, Kamau & Maema Advocates in Kenya agreed: ‘It’s so important to build those issues early into the discussion. Once you’ve collaborated with the same firm a number of times, that really helps.’

‘Trust is required on both sides,’ said Andrew Wanambwa of Lewis Silkin. ‘I have a particular interest in how firms operate in cross-border matters. Having worked in the BVI I know what it’s like to be at the receiving end of work from London law firms. There need s to be genuine collaboration. That is how you get the best results for the client.’

‘You need to build up an understanding of the level of sophistication of local firms,’ said Wood.

‘About 80% of my day is spent with Nigerian and Ghanaian lawyers,’ explained Balogun. Many of the lawyers he deals with are dual-qualified and can actually do the work themselves, he added.

In order to service indigenous as well as inbound clients it is vital to built deep reciprocal relationships with local firms, Wood stressed: ‘Personal relationships are critical.’


Maria Shahid is a freelance journalist