Noor Kapdi is Dentons' CEO for the Africa region. He leads the teams in South Africa and is Founding Partner of KapdiTwala (now Dentons). Noor is part of the global leadership of the firm and is responsible for developing and implementing Dentons' strategy in the Africa region.
Leaders League: You were a managing partner at KapdiTwala in South Africa. How did you decide to join Dentons to build their Africa platform?
Noor Kapdi: I have had a long-standing relationship with Dentons from the days when it was still called SNR Denton. It was the introduction by a mutual oil & gas client that showed us the importance of being part of a global firm. The Dentons partners at the time in London had approached a major oil & gas client of KapdiTwala expressing interest to do their work, especially in Africa. The client said they had been working with Dentons for several years but that KapdiTwala based in Cape Town would handle their work in Southern Africa.
That triggered a dialogue [between both firms] that was interesting. There was mutual respect for the different cultures and a deep understanding for independence. At this time, it became clear that there was a place for an African voice, inside what would become Dentons. There was a place for deeper talks to build Dentons’ Africa region.
From an African perspective, a couple of things were important. Every single penny that was going to be generated had to be generated in Africa and by Africans. We did not want to be a conduit for opportunities for lawyers not based in that specific jurisdiction. We wanted to create something 100% “made in Africa”.
The firms in South Africa, in particular, had to be managed by black people and majority-owned by black people, or African people. The management coming from London, Paris and other places was not an acceptable future for KapdiTwala.
Finally, and most importantly, we had a deep and clear understanding that the lawyers in African firms are every bit as talented as those in London and New York. And further, what sets Dentons apart is that every region of the firm is represented and has a voice at the Global Advisory Committee. This in itself is an acknowledgment of the talent at the table, our culture, and our partnership.
In 2015 when the combination occurred, how big was KapdiTwala, and how big is Dentons in South Africa today?
When we started our discussions, we were a team of three partners and eight lawyers. At the time, in South Africa, our decision to combine with Dentons was considered by some to be quite laughable. However, it was the first time an international law firm was combining with a Level 1 Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) law firm with some of the finest oil and gas clients.
Our journey has been phenomenal. We now have more than 40 lawyers we are ranked eighth in the market today and we have seen extraordinary growth. In short, we are a real contender in the market.
We have the best African M&A team, having been awarded the 2019 M&A Team of the Year award, at the African Legal Awards by Legal Week a few weeks ago, as well as other accolades. Having started as being an oil & gas and infrastructure firm, we have become a full-service firm meeting the needs of all of our clients.
Beyond oil and gas, what are the core practices now of Dentons Africa?
We are strong in the Corporate & commercial sphere, particularly in M&A. Banking and finance, private equity, and impact investment are other strong practices of Dentons in Africa. And of course, the oil and gas practice continues to be significant.
Dentons has then integrated law firms from Kenya and Mauritius. Was the combination a success and how?
Yes, indeed. In Kenya, Hamilton Harrison & Mathews had a longstanding relationship with Denton Wilde Sapte in London, structured through an association arrangement.
The association model, by the way, is one that suggests that local firms provide access to the market, but much of the bulk of the work is performed by lawyers from outside of the market. The local partners would be confined to doing local regulatory overviews.
After the combination, and in the Dentons spirit, we determined that this was no longer satisfactory and not in keeping with our polycentric approach. The work is now done much more locally. One of the (many) positive results has been the uptick in younger people joining the Kenya offices and handling big assignments. The Kenya team now has 45 lawyers, including 11 partners. We have gone beyond the association model, in a more integrated and glocal way. And that approach is what resonates with independent firms in Africa.
Likewise with Mauritius. We all know that Mauritius has become the gateway of capital coming from the ASEAN regions, India as well as China. It does not have a deep local market but has established itself as an international financial services center. It was important for Dentons to have a presence there since we have a strong client (and talent) base in Asia.
In Mauritius, we have integrated two firms, a solicitors firm, Mardemootoo Solicitors, and an advocate’s chambers named Balgobin Chambers. We have 15 senior lawyers, all advocates in chambers. The strength of our Mauritius office lies in corporate and commercial as well as financial services and private equity. Many of the private equity funds are establishing themselves there, and of course, they do their business in Africa.
All the way, we’re driven by clients. We track requests for legal services in various markets from clients and partners. This tells us which markets we should be looking at. The approach is the same with regard to which firms we should be talking to. We care about cultural cohesion and connectivity, and for firms who see the world in the way that we do.
And in Zimbabwe: what is your strategy there? and are you happy with the combination there too?
Zimbabwe is a very interesting case. With all the political changes there, you have challenges, particularly driven out of southern Africa. When Dentons looks at Southern Africa, as we do in all markets, we’re looking for the most talented people who see the benefits of being part of a global platform. This approach has proven to be a remarkable success, just in terms of being able to have a conversation with clients.
MawereSibanda (the firm with which we combined in Zimbabwe) is very strong in banking and finance. I think they represent most of the banks active there- both African and international. Corporate and commercial is another strength. We have a variety of practices: regulatory, environmental and others.
We are extremely happy with the combination. Zimbabwe has two kinds of firms today. The Rhodesian law firms are comprising mostly white, mostly male, mostly old lawyers, creating opportunities for mostly white, mostly male lawyers. They’re bastions of what used to be Rhodesia,[and whilst these are ]great firms, on the other hand, you have a few black law firms, which are in and of the community. The challenge you have with [both kinds of] law firms is that they are entrenched in the polarising politics of the country.
Dentons combined with a firm that had political gravitas, but politics was not its offering. 14 years ago, two young lawyers decided they wanted to develop their firm as a specialist firm identified by its top-quality services. Largely because of the history of the legal profession in Zimbabwe, the firm was one of a kind
As for Egypt, your presence dates back to the 19th Century and Denton Hall. This market has been politically challenging and unstable. How is it managed?
It’s a difficult question. It has been a challenging political environment but it has been managed by Michael Lacey, who is outstanding. In the [Egypt] office, at any one time, you will have several lawyers and partners. The local team is complemented with support from offices in Dubai, where we have Egyptian-qualified lawyers. Right now the firm in Egypt is part of the legacy Middle East presence, based in Africa but by and large supported by Dentons’ Middle East presence.
Moving forward, there is uncertainty. We’re driven by global clients and they are interested in the market. Egypt is fantastic in terms of size and potential, but international clients are not necessarily putting money on the ground now since the region is unsettled.
In Morocco, you have combined with Sayarh & Menjra. How is it going?
Dentons’ previous team in Casablanca had two partners and was a consultancy. We combined with Sayarh & Menjra, because they were outstanding lawyers, with local roots but with an international DNA having practiced first at Gide Loyrette Nouel. We are delighted to have Christophe Simonnet with us.
What will be the next steps of your growth strategy elsewhere in Africa, including Nigeria, a large market where you are still expected?
We are in advanced discussions with a firm in Nigeria, and I’m very excited about announcing a combination in the foreseeable future, probably towards the end of the first quarter of 2020. We’ve been working very hard for about two years in that market, and are very comfortable with where we will be in that marketplace.
Another key market is Ethiopia, for our clients in Asia and Europe. We are in advanced discussions with some of the firms there and are comfortable with where we’re heading.
Tanzania is another market we will probably enter, even though it’s challenging, mostly because of political changes and the effects that have on the local economy.
We are also very focused on and seeing considerable interest from firms in Algeria and Tunisia. These are areas we’re looking at closely.
I’d like to talk about why these firms are keen to join Dentons. Some of them are very small – two partners, five partners. How do they become global firms? Well, we’ve developed something called “Law Firm in a Box”. It’s an outstanding platform that allows us to take smaller firms and ensure consistent quality, service and administrative capabilities of a high standard, acceptable to global clients.
We are energized by the momentum we are building in Africa; clearly, the firms are responding very positively to Dentons’ polycentric approach which embraces the importance of being in and of the community. We look forward to sharing more with you in the coming months.