6 June 2012
(Bongo is Swahili for brain and bongoland has become the reference to Dar es Salaam as the saying goes, "you have to use your brain to live in the city".)
After graduating from the Law Faculty at the University of Cape Town in June 2007, like many others, I was in search of a law firm that would equip me with the necessary skills to become a good lawyer. For many, that meant securing a position at a top law firm and eventually making your way up to partner. For me it has been and continues to be a journey across several jurisdictions.
I went back home to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to work for Mkono & Co Advocates in association with SNR Denton. The role of the legal professional in Tanzania is merged. Essentially, there is no distinction between barristers and solicitors, or advocates and attorneys, as there is in the United Kingdom and in South Africa. Once you have passed the bar exam, you can appear before the high court and all subordinate courts thereof, except primary courts.
Likewise, you do not specialize in a particular area of law - with approximately 3000 people on the roll and a population of about 42 million, one cannot specialize. As a candidate attorney I dealt with whatever came in the door, which provided a variety of matters for me to work on throughout the day. For example I could go from appearing in court to represent an operations and management company of a major independent power supplier to researching how many hours a company should allocate to employees for breast feeding during a working day.
After three and a half years at Mkono & Co Advocates, I moved to a smaller firm - Ako Law in association with Clyde & Co. Here the work was focused on mining, oil and gas given the recent gas finds in the south of Tanzania. There were several projects running with major mining, oil and gas companies that we were able to work on because of our connection with Clyde & Co. However, as most of the projects were new to the legislative landscape of the country, often we found ourselves in discussions with governmental departments who had never considered certain scenarios, making us so to speak at the cutting edge of legal work in Tanzania.
Here, the association with the London based firm was more integrated: all the programs and IT systems were connected to the London office; and partners often took turns to come to Tanzania to manage the Corporate Department. While this was an amazing opportunity for local counsel, we were faced with several challenges, one of which was reporting to someone who was for a majority of the time in a different jurisdiction and time zone. At best we were straddling an office between two jurisdictions. The aim however was a noble one, providing expertise and support while exchanging the local knowledge and maintaining well established networks.
Last year an amazing opportunity to be seconded to a London city law firm emerged from the International Lawyers for Africa Programme (ILFA), a not for profit organisation in the UK aimed at enhancing legal capacity in Africa through a scholarship programme. The programme has been running for five years and each year young lawyers are chosen by their local law societies and then further shortlisted by the ILFA committee. In 2011, 17 lawyers were selected from Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Sudan, Tanzania, Tunisia, Uganda and Zimbabwe. I was one of the two Tanzanian lawyers in the group and the first Tanzanian female.
During the three months in London, I worked at Slaughter and May and Diageo Africa. Slaughter and May, unlike the other magic circle firms in London, has a culture of its own and prides itself on being a "general" firm. But there were still departments within the firm that specialised and I ended up in the Financing Department. Most of the magic circle firms have expanded their presence into emerging markets including Africa, but Slaughter and May maintains its 'best friend' networks and their work mostly covers European markets, with a natural focus in London. I was amazed at the level of importance placed on training, with three or more days allocated to one subject and several partners giving up their time to train a group.
During my time at Slaughter and May I was able to work in-house at Diageo Africa with the assistant legal counsel for Africa, learning the business and its operations across the African continent. The work ranged from drawing up sponsorship contracts; dealing with marketing strategies and their legal implications; harmonizing the internal Diageo codes with local legislation; as well as general legal work that was related to the production, distribution and branding of the various products that Diageo is responsible for. This opportunity helped me understand the role of an in-house lawyer.
ILFA also exposed me to a number of other top law firms who provided training sessions that reflected the economic hot spots in the legal market. Last year I received training in project finance from Trinity LLP; project management at SJ Berwin LLP; international capital markets and project bonds and international arbitration at Clifford Chance; derivatives and microfinance by Jeff Golden (a lecturer at London School of Economics); law of the World Trade Organization by Dr. Fiona Smith; and a day each at Oxford and Cambridge being lectured by professors of International Law. The objective of ILFA is to train young lawyers who then return to Africa and spread the knowledge while maintaining the networks gained.
Apart from the difference in training structure, there is, certainly from my experience, value in creating networks across Africa. As a continent of emerging markets, we need to harness the skills we have in order to grow and build capacity.
This is why I joined Webber Wentzel, a member of ALN (a group of leading African law firms). Not only is there a great partnership being built across the continent, but there is already a hub of international lawyers within the firm that one can call upon immediately. There is a dynamic mix that allows South African and foreign lawyers alike to work together and learn from each other.
Having worked at various firms in a couple of jurisdictions, this feels to me like the perfect balance. It is amazing to be able to share ideas on a daily basis with colleagues across the continent in order to achieve a common goal and gain knowledge on how difficult jurisdictions deal with the same matter. It certainly makes for a dynamic and challenging day at the office.
by Lotus Tahirih Menezes, Associate, Webber Wentzel, and Advocate of the High Court of Tanzania
Published in Without Prejudice July 2012