Africa’s Legal Market: The Business Case

Overview: The business case

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31 March 2014 | By Joanne Harris  | The Lawyer


A dynamic new generation of sub-Saharan lawyers is helping to guide the continent towards economic expansion

There are two things everyone tells you about Africa: first, it is not one country, but 54; and second, that they are working there.

The aim of The Lawyer’s first-ever Africa Elite report is to shine a spotlight on the firms that really are working in Africa – the locals. We have focused on 15 key jurisdictions in sub-Saharan Africa. We will look at North Africa in a separate report.

We chose to speak to the firms identified as particularly active in international and cross-border work. The focus of our interviews was to identify strategies for growth and development. Many engaged with enthusiasm, although a few – particularly in Francophone West Africa – were harder to get hold of.

Most African firms are certain that remaining independent is the way forward. Most are part of an alliance or network, led either from London by an international firm or within Africa, but generally these are not exclusive. When asked which international firms they work with, the common answer was “most of them”.

Waiting for the internationals

UK firms in particular, and increasingly US, European and Asian firms too, know they have to be active in Africa. Growth projections for most major African economies outstrip most Western economies, although South Africa lags a little, with projected 2014 growth of 2.7 per cent.

The potential in natural resources in many areas and the consumer boom in more developed countries such as Kenya and Nigeria means foreign interest will keep on building. Local firms are aware they can win lucrative work as the internationals come in.

In smaller jurisdictions, being part of an alliance is crucial for winning cross-border deals – those spanning three East African countries, for example.

In Africa there are two key networks led by independent local firms. The older is Lex Africa, founded in 1993 and now boasting 21 members in 21 countries. The other is the Africa Legal Network (ALN), which just added its 12th member in Nigeria. Founded by Kenya’s Anjarwalla & Khanna, ALN has a professional secretariat led by chief executive Michael Gera and chairman Cheick Modibo Diarra.

In South Africa, Bowman Gilfillan and ENSafrica are building their own pan-Africa groups. Both would prefer their own branded offices in key jurisdictions but local regulations make this difficult. Bowman Gilfillan Africa Group chair Jonathan Lang says the firm uses a model based on the accountancy firms.

“We don’t believe in an alliance or referral network approach – we’ve got to be financially and operationally integrated,” he says. “We want to build a proper pan-Africa practice that’s integrated. There’s quite a lot we can bring because we have the economies of scale.”

Friends across the sea

Meanwhile, from London and Paris an increasing number of international firms are developing some sort of Africa alliance. Dentons and DLA Piper are most advanced, with both having an extensive network of African best friends, some more integrated than others.

The firm’s Africa chair Thomas Laryea says further integration of its Africa network is “the direction in which Dentons is advancing”.

This is happening from other jurisdictions too, with firms such as Portugal’s Miranda forming their own alliances. Miranda managing partner Rui Amendoeira says the strategy has been developing reasonably well and, although the firm does not want to add any more allies or offices in Africa this year, future growth is likely.

“We want a reasonably small structure with a few people we can integrate, train, work and develop,” says Amendoeira.

A larger group of firms – including, but not limited to, Baker & McKenzie and Eversheds – is piloting a looser grouping of African outfits by organising conferences and training. The projects are generally touted as helping the African firms develop and building international firms’ exposure to the continent.

Bakers’ Emea chair Koen Vanhaerents says the initiative builds on the firm’s own African offices – it launched in Johannesburg in 2012 – and is designed to build “deeper relationships” with two or three firms in each market.

Eversheds’ Africa group head Boris Martor adds that the launch of the Eversheds Africa Law Institute has been phenomenally successful.

“All the firms have been buying in because they feel they need some assistance in their development,” Martor maintains.

Both Bakers and Eversheds want their African projects to become more integrated, although Martor and Vanhaerents add this is not the primary aim of the exercise.

“We’re looking at firms that have the same spirit – to develop connections in terms of the wider network,” says Martor. “But we’re not buying them to put a branch on the map – we’re not selling a network, we’re selling a platform.”

Vanhaerents adds Bakers wants Africa to be a genuine proposition for clients and the firm is willing to spend time building this offering.

The four leading countries

There is no doubt that some of Africa’s 54 sovereign states are of more interest to foreign clients than others. Top of the list are Angola, Kenya, Mozambique and Nigeria, which are ahead of the game on the development of their legal markets. 

Firms in these jurisdictions tend to be a little bigger and more sophisticated than elsewhere, as the economies they are working in are  more developed.

Indeed, the largest independent firm we spoke to outside South Africa was Nigeria’s Aluko & Oyebode, with 74 lawyers. Anjarwalla & Khanna, with 60 lawyers, is the largest in Kenya. To put that into context, only one UK top 100 firm and two top 100 European firms are smaller.

Most of Africa’s leading independent firms are far smaller, many with fewer than 20 lawyers. That said, many are also well-established and past the first or second generation – although others have been founded fairly recently by entrepreneurial lawyers keen to take advantage of the opportunities.

A significant part of the development of domestic African practices is experience gained overseas. US and UK legal qualifications are rife and many lawyers have spent time at the English bar or solicitors’ firms. They come back because they think they can have a real influence on the development of their home countries.

“We’re all like-minded in that we believe that what we do is changing our nations,” says Arshad Dudhia of Zambia’s Musa Dudhia & Co. “We can go to England and get a job, but we all want to be in Africa.”


The other strand of the Africa development story is in-house. Compared with in-house teams in the West, African companies’ legal capacity is still fairly small. For example Shoprite which, with 2012/13 revenue of ZAR92.7bn (£5.2bn) and 116,700 employees, is one of Africa’s top 10 companies by size, employs six lawyers in-house.

Others are a little larger; Nigerian energy giant Oando has a team of 15, as does South African retail company Massmart.

Yet other companies – such as decentralised trading and distribution giant Bidvest – have no single legal team but lawyers are scattered about the business depending on departments’ needs.

Firms instructed by African in-housers vary from local players to internationals, via the alliances, although opinions vary over the use of network structures.

“I don’t believe the pan-African networks assist our group in any way,” comments Shoprite company secretary and head of legal Pieter du Preez. And Oando chief legal officer Ngozi Okonkwo does not think the networks are as effective as they ought to be, although she has instructed alliance firms of her preferred advisers in Nigeria and is in support of the growth of networks.

“In the long run, it’s clear that this will be part of an inevitable evolution,” Okonkwo adds. “As the continent develops its industries and businesses, it will require a strong network of alliance firms alongside competent in-house capacity to deliver the support for its growth.”

But Neo Tsholanku, the head of legal for South Africa’s state-owned energy company Eskom, says he has consistently found good-quality advice by using the networks.

The in-house market is developing fast in Africa, but each company is taking its own view on the best approach. 

Massmart group general counsel Michael Spivey says: “It’s evolving towards a mix of internal and external. There’s no magic formula. There are areas such as statutory work and general transactional areas where it makes economic sense to bring work in-house. In other areas, such as large-scale commercial litigation or M&A, it’s only feasible through external professionals.”

Okonkwo adds: “Across the board, in-house teams are trying to do a lot more work themselves.” 

She notes that in-house is now a popular career choice for female and younger lawyers – and Nigerian lawyers are popping up in international companies’ legal teams around the world.

For now, the largest African companies are almost all South African, meaning the in-house community is also concentrated there. That said, there are a number of innovative in-housers in other jurisdictions, such as Adefunke Adeyeye, head of legal at Nigeria’s Silverbird Group and the subject of our in-house profile on page 8.

Next step for African lawyers

So where do Africa’s lawyers go next? While the independents want to remain so, international firms believe this attitude will be outpaced by change.

“Firms will start to integrate,” predicts DLA Piper Europe and Africa managing director Federico Sutti. “You get to a point where clients push to have an integrated presence because they don’t like having to buy services all around. They’re pushing the big law firms to have an integrated presence.”

DLA Piper’s international development partner David Church agrees. “There’s no reason Africa should be significantly different from any other continent in terms of the development of the legal profession,” he says.

Vanhaerents adds: “It’s hard to imagine it’ll be substantially different to what’s happened in, for example, Asia.” 

Norton Rose Fulbright South Africa managing partner Rob Otty says the role of local counsel will remain critical.

“If anybody thinks they can do work in Africa without using local counsel in whichever of the jurisdictions they’re doing business, I’d find that odd,” he says.

One thing the Africa Elite clearly shows is that local lawyers are leading the development of their markets, whatever some in the West might think.

“Africa is achieving its proper position in the global economy and the legal professions in the individual countries are developing rapidly – there’s a dynamic generation driving this and they’re hugely impressive,” concludes Church.

Additional reporting by Margaret Taylor

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