Five months after word leaked out that they were in talks, Linklaters and South Africa’s Webber Wentzel announced Tuesday that their respective partnerships have voted to approve an exclusive alliance between the two firms that will take effect February 1.
Under the loose union’s terms, 4,500-lawyer Linklaters and 400-lawyer Webber—which have long worked together closely via referrals—will retain their separate names, management teams, and financial operations, while sharing clients and collaborating on pitches for business. Linklaters and Webber leaders say the formal alliance will benefit the companies they represent and help create new business opportunities for both firms.
The official announcement of the alliance follows nearly a year of negotiations, with news of the Linklaters-Webber alliance talks leaking in July, as The Am Law Daily reported at the time.
Webber is one of the country’s few remaining large independent corporate law firms. Others include Bowman Gilfillan, Edward Nathan Sonnenbergs (ENS), and the smaller Werkmans. As The American Lawyer noted in its October issue, a surge in inbound direct investment in Africa in the past few years has pushed global firms’ interest in their top-tier South African counterparts to a fever pitch.
Recent entrants into the South African market include Norton Rose, which joined with Deneys Reitz as a verein in 2010, and DLA Piper, which joined with Cliffe Dekker Hoffmeyr as a verein in 2008. More recently, Canada’s Fasken Martineau DuMoulin announced six weeks ago that it was merging with a smaller corporate firm, Bell Dewar. That announcement came on the heels of September’s news that SNR Denton had agreed to affiliate with its second South African firm and Baker & McKenzie’s move into the South African market with the addition of Dewey & LeBoeuf’s 16-lawyer Johannesburg office amid that firm’s disintegration.
(In a related development, Baker announced Tuesday that it is nearly doubling the size of the Johannesburg outpost by adding 23 lawyers and staff from South African disputes–focused boutique firm Rudolph, Bernstein & Associates.)
As for Webber’s union with Linklaters, the South African firm said it expects the alliance to benefit its clients by giving them access to the Magic Circle firm’s lawyers in the Asia-Pacific nations that are among Africa’s key trading partners—specifically China, India, Korea, Japan, and Australia—Europe, the Americas, and the Middle East, as well as the Africa-focused resources Linklaters boasts in London, Paris, and Lisbon.
David Lancaster, Webber’s senior partner, said the alliance “is a vote of confidence in South Africa and Africa. It’s also a strong endorsement for Webber Wentzel. With the demand for cross-border legal services continuing to grow, Webber Wentzel and Linklaters will be working together for the benefit of clients across Africa. This arrangement is consistent with our strategy of helping clients wherever they do business in Africa.”
According to a Webber source, the negotiations related to the alliance were led on the Linklaters side by Sandeep Katwala, the regional managing partner of the firm’s Emerging Europe, Middle East and Africa practice; Andrew Jones, cohead of the firm’s mining sector group; and Patrick Sheil, a senior corporate partner. Webber was represented by Lancaster and corporate head Christo Els.
Els told The Am Law Daily Tuesday that the alliance is similar to the one Linklaters formalized with Allens Arthur Robinson in April, and that the two firms will establish a coordinating committee to look for areas of collaboration. Conflicts issues, to the extent they arise, will be dealt with on an individual basis, Els says.
Els said the alliance model avoids the kinds of complications a merger can create, including regulatory obstacles in South Africa and difficulties integrating vastly divergent pay scales. South African partners typically earn about half of what top U.K. or U.S. lawyers earn, according to The American Lawyer‘s October cover story.
“It’s really a very good structure,” says Els. “We have a very strong brand in South Africa and we’re not going to become Linklaters.” At the same time, he says, “We will get access to Linklaters’s global base, and they will have a presence throughout Africa that they will be able to sell to their clients.”
Tuesday’s announcement marks the latest twist in what has been a close collaboration between the two firms in recent years, especially in the context of South Africa–sided M&A deals, in project finance matters, and renewable energy–related work. For instance, both firms had a hand in advising the Industrial & Commercial Bank of China in connection with its acquisition of a $5.6 billion stake in South Africa’s Standard Bank Group Ltd. in 2007—at the time the largest inbound foreign direct investment into South Africa and among the largest outbound deals ever by a Chinese company. The two firms also worked together advising Vodafone Group Plc on its $2.1 billion acquisition of South Africa’s Vodacom Ltd in 2008, and also represented mining giant Anglo American Plc in connection with its $5.1 billion acquisition of South African diamond distributor De Beers in a deal announced last November.
The firms are currently working with the South African energy and treasury departments on developing a new tender bidding process to help the government in its push to create new wind, hydroelectric, and solar power sources.
Linklaters and Webber plan to collaborate even more closely now to win new matters, especially in those sectors gaining in importance across sub-Saharan Africa. Els notes, for instance, that major new offshore gas discoveries in Mozambique, Namibia, and Tanzania announced this year mean the firm could work together on pitches for legal work related to tapping those resources. Traditionally, Els acknowledges, Webber has not been a leader in the oil and gas space, though it does have some oil and gas expertise. “It’s just one example of an area where we may see ways to collaborate,” he says.
The remaining large independent South African firms have recently said that they remain committed to their independent paths. With an eye on remaining competitive, however, they have also been strengthening their African networks and adding lawyers. Bowman Gilfillan recently opened its own offices in Tanzania and Uganda and has plans to open offices in several other countries in the coming few years. ENS, meanwhile, has been boosting its head count. Just last week, the firm announced that it had acquired the 25-lawyer South African mining boutique Brink Cohen Le Roux. Two of the Brink firm’s top partners, Willem le Roux and Pieter Colyn, will head ENS’s mine and occupational health and safety department. Le Roux is currently representing the gold mining company AngloGold Ashanti Ltd. in a massive and groundbreaking class action filed this past summer in Johannesburg by a class of retired gold miners who claim they were stricken with occupational lung diseases as a result of their work for AngloGold.