Already the Canadian firm with the broadest international reach, Fasken Martineau DuMoulin announced Monday that it is beefing up its presence in the South African market by acquiring 76-lawyer Johannesburg firm Bell Dewar in a merger set to take effect in February 2013.

In combining with Bell Dewar, which offered its own announcement of the deal, Fasken is absorbing one of South Africa’s oldest and most respected firms, but one that is relatively small compared to such rivals as Bowman Gilfillan, Edward Nathan Sonnenbergs, and Webber Wentzel, and also suffered a notable loss in 2009 loss when top mining partner Bruce Dickinson jumped to Webber Wentzel, taking a major Brazilian client, mining giant Vale S.A., along in the process.

Joining forces with the Canadian firm should help put Bell Dewar on a stronger footing across Africa at a time when the legal landscape on the continent—and in South African especially—is shifting, as reported in The American Lawyer‘s October issue. Webber Wentzel, the country’s second-largest firm, announced in August, for example, that it was entering a formal affiliation with Linklaters. Several other international firms have also announced tie-ups or expansion in the country in recent years, including DLA Piper (with Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr), Norton Rose (with Deneys Reitz) and, most recently, Baker & McKenzie (with the 15-lawyer office in Johannesburg formerly with Dewey & LeBoeuf).

For Fasken, which already has 170 lawyers—or roughly 20 percent of its attorneys—working abroad out of its London and Paris offices‚ the merger with Bell Dewar comes nine years after the Canadian firm opened a small office in Johannesburg that at any given time has housed five to 10 lawyers, according to firm managing partner David Corbett. Fasken, itself the product of mergers of several Canadian firms, will have 773 lawyers all told when the Bell Dewar combination becomes official.
 
The modest Johannesburg outpost, Corbett says, didn’t provide clients with the “boots on the ground” to handle large deals and projects in South Africa. The addition of Bell Dewar’s lawyers should change that, Corbett says. “Our firm has done work in almost every country in Africa,” he says. “We plan to use Johannesburg as a base in conjunction with our Paris and our London offices.” Both firms are viewed as strong in mining, infrastructure, and project finance work.

Bell Dewar, which was founded in Johannesburg in 1889 to advise gold mining companies, counts Impala Platinum Holdings Limited, South Africa’s second-largest platinum mining company, and Royal Bafokeng Platinum, another major platinum producer, among its top clients. The firm also represents one of South Africa’s largest banks, Nedbank Group Limited, on project finance work. Bell Dewar has also historically represented the country’s major English-language newspapers, which over time became vocal apartheid opponents—a role that contributed to its local reputation as a progressive law firm.

Corbett says Fasken management began discussing a potential deal with Bell Dewar last January. The two firms subsequently surveyed their respective clients about a possible merger—and received an overwhelmingly positive response. Before voting on the tie-up, top Fasken partners visited the South African firm, while Bell Dewar’s management team traveled to all of Fasken’s major offices for meetings.

Representatives of both firms say Fasken’s higher billing rates—which, at $600–700 per hour, are about 25 percent higher than the top rates charged by South African firms, according to a South African corporate partner who has competed against the firm for assignments—were not an issue in the merger negotiations.

“Rates are secondary,” says Blaize Vance, a Bell Dewar tax and energy partner who will lead the South African arm of Fasken. “The number one thing is to deliver services. We didn’t want a sort of loose alliance or a franchise. We wanted clients to have a single point of contact. With alliances, you risk having to call lawyers at different offices to get things done.”

Meanwhile, as Fasken was announcing its expansion in South Africa, another major international firm was scaling back is presence in the country. London-based Eversheds said Monday that after four-and-a-half years it is cutting its ties to its 120-lawyer South African affiliate, which will now be known by its previous name, Routledge Modise, according to U.K. publication Legal Week.

Legal Week
reports that the split was triggered by unresolvable client conflicts. “Recently Eversheds and Eversheds South Africa found ourselves in an impossible situation where the best interests of two of our respective, prominent clients in different jurisdictions could not be fully represented,” Eversheds’s chief executive, Bryan Hughes, said in a statement provided to Legal Week. “With client service being at the heart of our collective ethos the joint decision was made that our South African firm would leave Eversheds.”

Despite the name change, Routledge was never fully integrated with Eversheds. In contrast, the Fasken deal is unique in the South African market in being planned as a full merger.