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Zebra Crossings: the view on secondment in Johannesburg

23 June 2017

When I left the UK, bound for Johannesburg, it was (and remains) a turbulent time with the UK government facing difficult negotiations in the coming years over Brexit- and now also in relation to its very ability to govern. It seemed like the right time to focus on building international relationships and I am fortunate to have been in a position to take advantage of Hogan Lovells’ vast international network by growing roots in a place with genuine, long-term opportunities for the future of our firm and our clients: South Africa. 

South Africa, and the wider African continent, has a number of challenges but there is significant potential in the medium to long-term. Yes, there was a debt downgrade in April 2017 (see the article http://www.hoganlovells.com/en/publications/south-africas-credit-rating-downgraded) and, yes, there are well-documented concerns about falling commodity prices and a slow-down in Chinese investment in Africa. These challenges cannot be overlooked. 

However, there are statistics that should whet the appetite of any business or financial institution looking to build a long-term relationship in Africa: (i) a demand for financing infrastructure (the World Bank estimates that Africa will require just over USD90bn across all asset classes every year for a decade just to satisfy current need); (ii) by 2034, Africa will have a young, mobile and digitally connected labour force surpassing both India and China. Something that you will see on the South African streets and in the glitzy shopping malls (wherever you go) is just how technologically literate and engaged young people are, with a relentless entrepreneurial spirit to find local solutions to local challenges– coupled with a desire to succeed and a strong pride in South Africa. 

Being on secondment can be daunting but the experience has helped me to view Hogan Lovells in an international context, with global ambitions. The best part is contributing to something that all major law firms are currently grappling with: how to make international collaboration between different offices count.

At Hogan Lovells, one example that I have had first-hand experience of is an initiative under which certain finance work on a transaction is split between London and Johannesburg. This has some obvious benefits: (i) it can make a deal more cost-effective; (ii) it assists in getting a transaction over the line more quickly; and (iii) allocates resource and time efficiently. This shows how well we are integrating as a firm and the ultimate winners of such collaboration are our clients.     

Collaboration work can also be less formal. Since arriving, I have been delivering a series of presentations to the business restructuring and banking teams here in Johannesburg. The presentations have focussed on insolvency processes in the UK (in particular, liquidation and administration), post-insolvency finance, third-party rights and set-off. This has produced some fascinating conversations, highlighting the differences and similarities in approach between South Africa and the UK. 

In my view, both jurisdictions have something to learn from each other: South Africa has a comprehensive post-insolvency finance regime already in place for companies that need urgent access to cash whilst in an insolvency process and there are bits and pieces of UK case law in relation to placing a company into administration which might be useful for lawyers interpreting the provisions of the relatively new business rescue regime in South Africa.

Living in Sandton, I have really been able to bear witness to the economic engine of South Africa. Accountancy houses, major financial institutions, mining businesses, energy and technology companies congregate together in this part of Johannesburg. It is also no surprise, therefore, that the business restructuring and banking teams are handling high-profile / high-value work and it has been a privilege to be able to work for some of the same clients in South Africa that I was working with back in London. 

A standout example of my work here is the cross-jurisdictional pursuit of a borrower group for a major financial institution, assisting the head of restructuring in South Africa, Alex Eliott. I have also witnessed a number of cases handled by the firm that are at the cutting-edge of the business rescue process in South Africa. It would be remiss of me not to mention the client relationships that the firm has helped me to build and I know that these will be invaluable going forward when I return to London.  

When I do leave in mid-July, I will greatly miss South Africa. But it is not the end. The firm takes the investment that it has made in me (and the other secondees) seriously and I am hoping to start an associate committee that brings all those associates together that have been on secondment to either London or South Africa.  

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