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International links vital for African lawyers in increasingly connected legal environment: Des Williams – August 2011

International links vital for African lawyers in increasingly connected legal environment: Des Williams – August 2011

August 2011: As South African law firms grapple with a changing marketplace, new trends are emerging in the way some are doing business.

“While it would be an overstatement to say the profession is at a crossroads, all firms are being kept on their toes in an increasingly demanding business environment,” says Des Williams, chairman of Werksmans Attorneys.

He explains, “The main challenges we all face are political and economic uncertainty, the transformation imperative and accelerating competition”.

Despite this, international interest in South Africa is increasing, not only from traditional sources such as the United Kingdom and the United States but also China, India and the rest of Africa.

He says, “With the increasing interest in Africa as an investment destination, and the growing footprint of multi-nationals on the continent, the need for experienced and reputable local legal services is becoming ever more critical”.

Williams points out that it is difficult for South African law firms to set up their own offices in most African countries, or to achieve their growth objectives on the continent through mergers, and they are therefore responding in different ways.

He says, “It is generally far more effective to brief a local law firm you can trust, thereby avoiding much of the hassle and grind which would otherwise be involved in establishing African contacts”.

Understanding this, Werksmans co-founded Lex Africa, a network of leading African law firms, as long ago as 1993. The success of this model has seen its subscription-paying members increase to 30 (each member representing one African country), providing access to about 400 lawyers on the ground across Africa.

With regard to foreign law firms relationships, Williams says, “Just as relatively few South African law firms have yet sought a direct presence overseas, only a handful of foreign firms have opened offices in South Africa”.

He explains, “It is difficult for an international law firm to compete with us on our home turf. All of the larger South African firms are able to offer the full range of corporate and commercial legal services, usually at more competitive rates. It is much easier for an international firm to establish a profile in South Africa by entering into some form of alliance with a local firm”.

With regard to developments in the South African market, including the entry of local firms into formal alliances and even mergers with multi-jurisdictional international firms, Williams comments, “Clearly, there is room in the market for moves of this type, but these are steps which will not appeal to all major firms”.

Local firms that have good relationships with a wide range of law firms in London – from which South African firms receive a high percentage of their international work – provide a good example.

“These South African firms will hesitate to move into any form of exclusive international alliance, as the effect could be a decrease in international work for them. It is generally better for these firms to develop non-exclusive relationships with a select number of foreign law firms. One of the ways in which these relationships are established and maintained is through active participation in reputable international organizations”, he says.

“Participation and involvement in such organisations offers significant opportunities to build networks and, in a small way, to help shape the future of the legal profession,” says Williams.

One such organisation is the International Bar Association (IBA), whose membership consists of over 35 000 individual attorneys and almost 200 Law Societies and Bar Associations.

Werksmans has been closely involved with the IBA since about 1987. Williams is a Council member of the Legal Practice Division and a former chairman of the Litigation Committee. Two other Werksmans directors also hold leadership positions at the organisation. Neil Kirby, a health and life sciences law specialist, is the chairperson of the Medicine & Law Committee. Pieter Steyn, who specialises in African cross border transactions and competition law, is the secretary of the IBA’s Antitrust Committee.

Another important organisation in which Werksmans has recently become involved is the Paris based International Chamber of Commerce. Williams has recently been appointed as the sole South African member of the Court of Arbitration of the International Chamber of Commerce, which is the court which ensures the application of the rules of arbitration of the ICC and oversees the ICC arbitration process.

Williams concludes, “There is no one-size-fits-all approach that applies in South Africa, whether in terms of size, reach or business model. There is a lot happening in the legal market, but only one certainty: competition is increasing and competition is good for clients”.

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