The evolution of African legal services

By Carrie Davies

With Africa being a diverse place where no two countries run the same Carrie Davies, Gowling WLG discusses the evolution of the African legal services.

In many parts of Africa, increasing commercial investment, combined with major infrastructure and natural resource-focused developments, have supported the growth of the legal services sector. The speed of development, as well as its multidimensional nature, means that investors and governments increasingly demand complex legal and professional support. Ensuring delivery of advice in an efficient and holistic manner, however, comes down to more than technical legal skills.  Successfully co-ordinating the advice, and the legal advisors involved in giving it, requires excellent management skills.

The legal services sector in the UK has been relatively slow to recognise the importance of management skills in the profession, but a number of law schools are now incorporating management training as a core part of their programmes. This is a direct response both to client demands on firms, and to the requirements of running law firms themselves, in today's fast-paced commercial environment. 

Increasingly complex transactions mean that lawyers are expected to go beyond providing technical legal advice, to working alongside clients in various aspects of their businesses. This includes co-ordinating the inputs of other professional services into deals, and demonstrating a comprehensive appreciation of wider macro-economic or industry-specific factors that have a bearing on any legal work. Managers at client businesses expect to be able to engage with their legal advisers on various levels, and for lawyers understand commercial, as well as purely legal, issues.

New entrants into the legal services sector are challenging the traditional structure of law firms. This is resulting in law firms needing to expand their service offerings. Firms are also beginning to recognise that promoting those who are technical experts, or consummate rain-makers, does not necessarily equate to promoting those who are best equipped to develop teams and manage the business of a firm. 

In the UK, some firms have been relatively slow to acknowledge the importance of management skills for lawyers. The traditional nature of legal practice means that there is sometimes resistance, particularly among more established lawyers, whose careers have focussed on developing detailed technical knowledge of their particular practice area. This means that there are opportunities for those firms, and individual lawyers, who can combine legal and management skills. 

In many jurisdictions in Africa, lack of management skills is a major constraint to business development. For forward-thinking African lawyers looking to differentiate themselves and grow their practice, combining technical expertise and management capability will set them apart. 


One way in which firms in Africa might consider developing the lawyer-manager of the future is engaging with law schools to include management training in law programmes. By incorporating management skills as part of an overall training package, these become embedded as a core competency, rather than a 'nice to have', by the time junior lawyers qualify and begin practicing.  This will benefit firms themselves, and their clients. 

Training is only part of the solution, however. Experience in the UK shows that lawyers who want to develop their management skills benefit from a range of opportunities requiring them to step out of their technical, legal, comfort zones. This might take the form of client secondments that allow legal professionals to get under the skin of an industry, as well as to develop a closer relationship with a particular client, or pro-bono work that allows junior lawyers to manage a particular matter or case, and thus develop their skills. At the same time, firms might consider adapting their motivation and reward structures to take account of the changing needs of the market. Finally, taking advantage of the offering of training from international partner firms is vital as this can include opportunities for exchange visits; co-working is a great way to develop lawyer-managers, as it offers new scenarios that challenge and strengthen fee earner skills sets.

Law firms in Africa can derive opportunity from clients' challenges that arise from lack of skilled managers. By providing the skills of lawyer-managers, firms have a unique opportunity to get alongside clients and become trusted advisers, securing a lasting and mutually beneficial relationship. This may require lawyers to reconsider their traditional roles, but there are long-term benefits for firms, clients and the lawyers themselves. 

For more information on business topics in the Middle East and Africa, please take a look at the latest edition of Business Chief MEA.

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