Interview: What Makes a Law Firm a Success in Africa?

Our directors Jeetesh Kathawaroo and Ignaz Fuesgen were interviewed by www.africalegaljobs.com on hot topics in African law firm management (article was published by Biz Watch Nigeria).

There are a variety of different ways in which a law firm can measure its success, depending on the perspective taken. If law firms have the expertise that their clients need, when their clients need it, in the location that their clients operate in, then they are positioned to succeed.  In addition, a lawyer’s ability to successfully partner with a client, and to render commercially beneficial advice to clients when they need it, can be an accurate measure of whether they will be able to deliver an excellent service.

It is this excellence in law firms and legal professionals that was honoured at the recent ESQ Nigerian Legal Awards. The Awards reflected pre-eminence in key transactions, practice areas, and achievements over the last eighteen months, including notable work, strategic growth, excellence and innovation in client service, advancement in technology and contribution to the legal profession at large. This year, Aluko & Oyebode won the Law Firm of the Year award and also took first prize in the Telecommunications Team of the Year category. Justina Lewa, General Counsel and Company Secretary at Sterling Bank Plc, won the General Counsel of the Year award.

One of the keys to any law firm’s success is having the best people, with the right skills in place. This is the view of Jeetesh Kathawaroo and Ignaz Fuesgen, directors at Avuka Training and Coaching, a firm specialising in professional services training. Kathawaroo and Fuesgen were featured on www.africalegaljobs.com, an online portalthat provides legal job seekers in Africa with the most relevant vacancies, news and training thereby helping to place the best people in the right law firms and in house legal teams.

Kathawaroo noted that, "In terms of training in law firms, it is the softer skills that are often most lacking. Most law firms have candidate attorney (CA) programmes that offer plenty of resources for the CAs to learn about the law, from rotating through practice areas for hands-on experience through to online training and knowledge portals. "However, entrepreneurship, leadership, business development and management training, skills needed to sell and promote legal services and most importantly, form lasting relationships with clients, are areas where training is most needed."

Fuesgen notes that in the past, law firms were positioned in a reactive space where clients called them when their advice was needed. This is no longer enough. With increased global competition and the power balance shifting to clients, law firms are realising they should be more proactive, client-focused and able to anticipate legal risks faced by clients to secure work.

“New investors and new business models are targeting Africa as the last promising investment destination globally. Across the board, we are seeing those financial and strategic investors introducing their own views regarding advisory services models and remuneration styles, which they have successfully deployed elsewhere. That attendant phenomenon is affecting the legal profession on the ground in Africa. In Nigeria and South Africa, for example, lawyers had been relying, up until now, on their individual excellence and their reputable, established brands, but this is no longer sufficient.  Lawyers now need to look at and compare the quality of their client service, the agility of their individual service delivery models and their ability to stand up to global best practice,” he says. A core skill, but one where there is often a gap for lawyers is business development.

“The term business development has been tainted in the past, often related to unsolicited sales approaches. Business development is about instilling a sense of client focus and pro-activity. Fee-earning partners in business development roles and non-fee earning business development professionals need to be very close to prospective clients and must have a keen understanding of their business environments. It is about knowing the implications of the current and imminent legal and regulatory frameworks of a client's future strategy, pointing out where business risk can be alleviated and performing a reliable caretaker role.  Business development means partnering with clients in terms of identified context variables that have a significant impact on their businesses."

Fuesgen notes that a common mistake law firms make in terms of training is the decision to use a generic training programme because the right, specific programmes are not available. “This inevitably results in disappointment. The training programmes need to be specific and bespoke so that it accurately meets the needs and the culture of the firm,” he says. “In addition, to successfully implement training, the firm’s current and future strategy needs to be considered. Training that is potentially “disruptive” and drives a new business model must be followed up with a change management programme so that the reason for the training and the future direction of the firm is clearly articulated to all employees.” Kathawaroo highlights that law firms and their clients are demanding, working to a high standard of excellence. In turn, training and training service providers need to meet and exceed the same standards, especially in terms of relevance, quality and value.

A training needs analysis, conducted right at the beginning of the process, enables a firm to understand what the training gaps are. “A need analysis can often identify wide discrepancies in what management think are the training needs for fee-earners and employees at their firm and what they really are. This process is thus an extremely valuable part of the training programme in terms of achieving a true Return on Training Investment (ROTI),” says Kathawaroo. He notes that during a needs analysis, discussions automatically centre on the firm’s business model and what their future direction will be. 

Speaking specifically about the Nigerian legal market, Fuesgen notes that, “With many foreign firms entering the African continent and Nigeria being amongst the biggest and most attractive legal services markets in Africa, local independent firms need to clarify where they are in terms of their affiliations.

“Is their strategy that they become part of a global network or do they create their own network and team up with peers in other African countries?  The question they need to ask is, how do I embed my Nigerian law firm in the context of work in Nigeria and rest of Africa? Each firm has to assess its options going forward and decide, based on their ambitions and current capacities,” says Fuesgen.

"The competitive landscape is forcing each jurisdiction, that is local practitioners and law societies, to revisit aspects of practice management and professional standards in context of the global village.  Law firms in Africa are subject to change, and those delivering excellence are being noticed," he adds.