African legal services - Where next post-COVID?

03 February 2021

The world has changed in ways that we could not have imagined twelve months ago. Carrie Davies, at Gowling WLG, revisits her views about the challenges and opportunities facing Africa's law firms and asks if there are opportunities that could come out of these darkest of times.

The last article on this topic focused on the opportunities for law firms resulting from increasing commercial investment, combined with major infrastructure and natural resource-focused developments. The opportunities outlined remain applicable in a post-COVID-19 world: namely the need to customise legal services to suit a wide variety of commercial clients and the requirement to work seamlessly with other professional services providers. It was identified that the "lawyer as manager" would become increasingly important.

However, COVID, and the resulting social and economic changes the pandemic has wrought, have led to a change in focus in what is most important both within firms, and between firms and their clients.

Development has slowed in most countries but the demand for legal services remains reasonably strong in most economies in Africa. Clients continue to demand complex legal and professional support, with advice delivered in an efficient and holistic manner, but, more than ever, responding to clients' expectations comes down to more than technical legal skills. Now the use of technology and the ability to empathetically manage teams and co-workers remotely, often in environments with limited infrastructure, adds a new level of complexity.

Traditional firms continue to be challenged by services offered by boutique firms, whether domestic or overseas-based. Although the number of such firms has not increased significantly, the impact of the types of niche, specialised, services they offer on client expectations of what traditional firms can provide is being felt, particularly as a result of the pandemic. Clients are increasingly looking to stabilise their current investments, cut costs, restructure and plan for a post-COVID future. Above all they are looking for advisors who can help them manage increased uncertainty. Such advisors are not only good technical lawyers, but also have a detailed commercial understanding of their clients' businesses and can advise on management decisions that have not typically been the remit of lawyers. In other words the lawyer-manager is increasingly sought-after.

At the same time clients are looking for reassurance and certainty, evidenced for example in increasing demands for fixed-fee services. Lawyers in a number of African jurisdictions are used to advising in an unpredictable business environment but the pandemic has exacerbated both social and economic uncertainty. This uncertainty affects not only firms and their clients, but also the individuals within them. Those firms that will emerge from this crisis stronger are those who are best-able to align themselves with their clients and share ideas and coping strategies, both as advisors and as humans. Here, then, we see the need for the lawyer-manager to also demonstrate empathy and the ability to identify with clients both commercially and interpersonally.

Firms that will prove to have been the most resilient to the current crisis are those that are able to embrace technology, new ways of working, and that demonstrate to their clients that they can go beyond providing legal advice to being truly trusted advisors.

The importance of technology in facilitating, or limiting firms' abilities to respond to pandemic life cannot be overstated. Of course technology is only as good as the access to Internet and electricity available, and we can expect to see increased demands in most jurisdictions for improved infrastructure to enable remote working. Those firms that have been able to continue operating as close to seamlessly as possible will reap dividends from their investments in IT and other tech.

However, technology can only take you so far. Ultimately, success in law is also about success with people. Those firms that retain talent after the pandemic is over will be those that have adapted to their employees' personal needs, recognised that everyone is being affected in different ways by the impacts of COVID and have provided support that goes beyond the traditional pay and benefits.

Firms that are well-placed to grow out of the current uncertainty are those who have not only strengthened their relationships with their own teams, but also with their clients, both through quality and efficiency of response, but also through the human relationships they have built on during this time. Clients will remember which lawyers made a friendly call to check in with no explicit commercial intent.

Now, more than ever, forward-thinking African lawyers looking to differentiate themselves and grow their practice, need to combine technical expertise and management capability to set themselves apart, while at the same time visiting a space uncomfortable for many in the profession (not only in Africa!) – engaging empathetically and as fellow humans with clients.

As has been argued previously, 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. Now I would go further and say that the lawyer-manager also needs to reveal their human side and share a little compassion with their clients. This is not easy, it requires lawyers to reconsider their traditional roles, and move out of their comfort-zones but there are long-term benefits for firms, clients and the lawyers themselves.

Discussing how this approach can be tailored to specific circumstances is key to professional and personal development, and to adapting experience to local needs.

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