The globalization of legal business has generally come in waves, moving from one country to the next. In the late 1990s, U.S. and U.K. firms flocked to Germany. Intense law firm activity has also been seen in recent years in Hong Kong, China, Russia, Central and Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. Most recently, Australia and Canada have dominated the headlines.

The signs are that it may now be Africa’s turn. The eyes of the international legal elite seem to be increasingly fixed on the region, attracted by an economy that is one of the world’s fastest growing, with gross domestic product still rising at almost 5 percent per year.

Last week, Baker & McKenzie became the latest firm to launch on the continent, establishing an office in South Africa with the hire of a 31-lawyer team from Dewey & LeBoeuf—one of the now-bankrupt firm’s last remaining outposts. Wildu du Plessis, who joined Baker alongside fellow co–managing partner Morne van der Merwe and six other partners, says that the specialist energy, mining, and projects group was approached by several firms, but that Baker’s “unmatched global platform” clinched the deal. Baker, highest-ranked firm by revenue on the The Am Law 100, now has 70 offices in 43 countries.

The opening of Baker’s Johannesburg base—the firm’s third new office in the past year, after Istanbul and Doha—follows Norton Rose’s merger with South African firm Deneys Reitz last June and recent launches by Magic Circle pair Allen & Overy and Clifford Chance in Morocco. Baker’s Europe, Middle East, and Africa chair Koen Vanhaerents says the firm is now looking at Maghreb—a region of northwest Africa that includes Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia—to expand its coverage to the north.

Those firms are soon to be joined by London-based Herbert Smith, whose Africa practice and global mining head Stéphane Brabant tells me that a new office in sub-Saharan Africa is likely to be approved by the end of this month. Meanwhile, A&O and Clifford Chance are both currently investigating proposed launches in South Africa, according to a local source with knowledge of the situation. (An A&O spokesman said that developing the firm’s practice in Africa was a strategic priority and that the firm was therefore taking an “active interest” in South Africa and other key centers on the continent, but that there was nothing to announce “at this stage.” Clifford Chance declined to comment.)

“There’s more to emerging markets than just Brazil, India, and China,” says Brabant. “Africa is the continent of the future.”

Having seeing a marked increase in client demand for advice in South Africa, Baker convened a special committee 18 months ago tasked with planning its own operations in the country. South Africa is comfortably the largest and most sophisticated economy on the continent, home to 17 of Africa’s 20 largest companies. But it is already well serviced by a fiercely competitive legal market, with established local outfits such as Bowman Gilfillan, Edward Nathan Sonnenbergs and Webber Wentzel each employing more than 300 attorneys. DLA Piper, U.K.–based Eversheds, Norton Rose, SNR Denton, and White & Case are among the few international firms to have tackled South Africa, and even then, White & Case is the only one to have established a greenfield base. The rest have all either been the result of mergers or alliances. (DLA Piper has an association with Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr; Eversheds with Routledge Modise; SNR Denton with Glyn Marais. Last February, Routledge won a court ruling allowing it to trade under the Eversheds brand.)

No wonder, then, that a Baker source says the firm had struggled to identify suitable opportunities in South Africa before Dewey’s collapse gifted it with a ready-made practice. (Amazingly, the team only joined Dewey from local South African firm Werksmans earlier this year. That Dewey’s management approved the hires at a time when they were aware of the firm’s parlous financial condition surely raises further questions over their running of the business.)

Herbert Smith actually came close to launching in Africa five years ago, Brabant says—even getting as far as preparing the necessary documentation to apply for a local practice license—but a surprise change in regulation caused the firm to “give up at the last minute.” Brabant is staying tight-lipped about which two countries are under consideration—he would only say the office would be in francophone Africa—but partners at the firm say that the committee has considered Ghana and Guinea. (Herbert Smith has previous experience in Guinea, having last summer advised Rio Tinto on its multibillion-dollar iron ore project in the Simandou range.)

Somewhat surprisingly, given that Herbert Smith doesn’t yet have any lawyers on the ground, Brabant says Africa already accounts for around 8 percent of the firm’s revenue, which in the fiscal year ended April 30, 2011, stood at £465.1 million ($718 million). The firm has operated a dedicated Africa practice for more than a decade and now has almost 30 lawyers based in Paris working full-time on the region.

It’s easy to see why firms such as Baker and Herbert Smith are getting so excited about Africa. It’s the world’s second-largest and second-most populous continent, with more than 1 billion inhabitants, while annual foreign investment increased 27 percent to $80 billion in 2011. Big Four accounting firm Ernst & Young predicts inbound investment will hit $150 billion within the space of just three years.

For global law firms, Africa presents opportunities for creating work across multiple jurisdictions. Although the United States and the United Kingdom remain the top two investors in Africa, according to E&Y, money is increasingly flowing into the continent from China, India, and South America as part of a growing south-to-south trade stream. Data compiled by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development shows that trading volumes between China and Africa have increased 300 percent since 2000, for example. And with the world’s fourth-largest reserves of oil and 30 percent of global mineral resources, the continent is also a key component of an emerging natural resource axis comprising China, Australia, South America, and Canada. (Norton Rose’s combinations in South Africa, Australia, and Canada are a good example of a firm trying to tap into this buoyant sector.) There has even been a growing trend for Japanese trading houses taking positions within Africa.

But perhaps the most significant reason for the continent becoming a more viable prospect for international law firms is the development of the market beyond the traditional extractive industries. Most Big Law Africa practices have to date largely been focused on oil and gas, mining, and related projects work. But the increasing urbanization of many African countries and the rise of a middle class has driven rapid growth in the banking, telecoms, manufacturing, retail, insurance, and infrastructure sectors. Consulting firm McKinsey & Company estimates that consumer spending across Africa will reach $1.4 trillion by 2020.

The continent presents a considerable challenge for even the most international of legal businesses, however. Africa remains an extremely fragmented market.  “When people talk about doing work in ‘Africa’ it makes me smile,” says Brabant, who spent seven years living in Gabon in a former role at PricewaterhouseCoopers’s local legal arm, Fidafrica. “Africa is not one place—it’s 54 countries with different economies, regulations, and cultures. It’s very diversified.”

The decentralized nature of the market makes the choice of office location particularly important for law firms looking to enter the region. Helpfully, strong regional hubs are emerging: the already popular Morocco in North Africa; Nairobi and Kenya in an increasingly cohesive trading block in East Africa; the Ivory Coast in francophone Africa; and Lagos, Nigeria, and Ghana in the anglophone areas of West Africa. One of Africa’s largest economies and one of the region’s top oil producers, alongside Algeria and Angola, Nigeria is a particularly attractive prospect. But like many other countries in the continent, it is blighted by political unrest, and as such is an unlikely destination for international firms in the near future.

As has been the case in India for years, many firms are building relationships with local shops throughout Africa in anticipation of a continued increase in workflows. A&O’s Africa group head Tim Scales says his firm has worked with more than 50 firms in Africa. “There’s no question that law firms have over the past few years become more coordinated in how they approach Africa,” says Scales. “Ensuring you have a viable network of trusted best friend firms is critical to being able to service clients across the continent.”

Some firms have taken an even more direct route to engineer these referral ties. Herbert Smith has been hiring lawyers from African law firms, companies, and ministries, training them for up to five years with its Africa team in Paris, then sending them back home to establish their own practices—most recently with Cabinet Habibatou Touré in Senegal. Others have adopted similar schemes.

Not having an office in Africa certainly hasn’t impeded Linklaters: The firm scored roles on the country’s largest M&A transactions in each of the past two years. (Linklaters advised mobile communications company Zain Africa on its $10.7 billion sale to Indian telecoms giant Bharti Airtel in 2010, and mining group Anglo American on its acquisition of a further $5.1 billion stake in diamond miner De Beers in 2011. Bharti was represented by Herbert Smith and Indian firm AZB in the transaction. Legal and wealth management firm Maitland acted for De Beers.)

“We’re always reviewing whether we should open offices in Africa, but at the moment our approach is to have very close relations with local firms,” says Linklaters’s global mining cohead Andrew Jones. “Trying to tackle the whole continent comprehensively would be very difficult. You’d need a lot of offices.”

It’s not implausible that some international firms will someday have four or five offices across Africa. Rob Otty, managing director of Norton Rose South Africa, told U.K. publication Legal Week in March that he “would be surprised if any truly global firm believes they do not require a presence in Africa” in the longer term. And with law firms having already conquered much of North and South America, Europe, and Asia—and assuming that even expansionist Baker or DLA would be unlikely to ever plant a flag in the Antarctic—Africa takes on particular significance as the last great frontier for legal business.

“It’s very early days, and still not an obvious market to invest bullishly in, but getting to know your way around is a very wise move,” says Baker’s Vanhaerents. “We expect the continent will finally awaken soon. We want to be sure we are ready when it does.”

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Chris Johnson is The American Lawyer’s chief European correspondent. Reach him at cjohnson@alm.com. Follow him on Twitter at @chris_t_johnson.