In this, Part II of his look ahead to what this year will bring for Africa’s law firms, Tom Pearson reflects on the huge gains forced by the pandemic and building on the borderless instinct of African business.
A whole month of the year 2021 has passed and only now am I putting pen to paper with ‘predictions’! If I can be forgiven, perhaps this delay itself is evidence for one of my predictions being true - 2021 is going to be BUSY.
Beyond such a lazy prediction, here are some more detailed observations for the year to come.
A storm weathered but not beaten
I’m hearing from firms of all locations and sizes that the doom-saying around client cash-flow drying up and lawyers simply not adjusting to remote working to sustain a practice have, for the most part, been proven false.
Yes, client invoices are taking longer to settle and negotiation of fees remains high but, we’re still standing and moreso, we’ve learnt that we’re more resilient as an industry than we ever gave ourselves credit for!
If you had polled Managing Partners in Jan 2020 about how quickly and efficiently you, their firms, could transition to 100% remote-working I doubt you would have had more than one in 10, if they were being honest, giving a positive response. Well just look at us now… from the South African giants all the way to one-partner firms in Lagos, I’ve been blown-away by the speed and ability of African law firms to embrace not only remote working but also the sensible deployment of technology and processes to enhance the effectiveness of such.
I do, however, think that the fallout from Covid is far from over. The biggest risk I see is that lulls in infection rates and, more importantly, government guidance or restrictions lead our more traditional peers to rush back to physical offices, tired ways of communication (both internally and with clients) and a step away from the technology they were thrust into at the start of the pandemic. I would consider all such movements as a negative. Now is the time for law firm leaders to look at the genuine and long-term benefits which are on offer from the pivoting they have had to do to survive thus far.
March of the arbitrators
I am reminded with each conversation I have with a young and ambitious African business owner at just how little importance is placed on country borders on the continent when it comes to the operation and growth of their businesses - the vast majority of which are tech or communications focussed.
It is this ‘borderless vision’ which makes me so excited for the growth and rollout of the African Continental Free Trade Area - governments seem to have finally caught up with the fact that African business typically cares little for borders and cares even less for restrictions on goods and services crossing such borders.
So what does this have to do with arbitration...?
I foresee it being quite some time, if ever, that the AfCFTA has a robust, trusted and efficient mechanism for the resolution of disputes (on both a governmental and private level) between parties. I also cannot foresee businesses relishing the prospect of conducting litigation in unpredictable, under-resourced and foreign domestic courts.
Instead, I believe that arbitration, particularly that hosted remotely or under the neutral-rules of many of Africa’s established and new arbitration centres as being the preferred and selected method for dispute resolution by parties taking advantage of the expansion opportunities under the AfCFTA. As businesses seek to engage and interact with new customers in new jurisdictions, I would hope that our legal community, likewise, pursue the opportunity to develop client relationships in markets outside of their own. I see the development of robust arbitration or ADR departments as a vital step in ensuring that they are able to do this - I am already seeing this trend taking shape.
Legal Tech - Reset of Rocketship?
If nothing else, and in relation to ‘legal tech’, the pandemic has broadly educated the legal profession that ‘legal tech’ is often just ‘tech’... without the need to be ‘AI Powered’ or able to ‘Map 27,000 data points per second and present via a real time graphical interface’ without diminishing the massive value it can bring a law firm or corporate legal department.
The transition to video-conferencing, instant-messaging and (limited) customer-relationship-management (CRM) software uptake are all great examples of true progress having been made by the African legal profession in 2020 and into 2021. I see the remainder of the year continuing on a gentle upward trajectory when it comes to interest in and purchase of technology to empower lawyers. This ‘slow but steady’ approach to legal tech is no bad thing, in face I encourage it! A circuit breaker on a great number of Africa’s law firms suddenly believing they need to spend vast sums of money on non-African, expensive and unnecessary ‘legal tech’ will be useful for the industry in the long run. The failed implementation of an unnecessary and expensive solution can have far deeper, and lengthy negative ramifications than a firm taking a slower approach to finding their ‘tech legs’.
So there you have it. Three predictions for (the rest of) 2021. Agree, disagree or want to talk about this further? Please post on social media or email me at email@example.com
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