Zambian attorney Sharon Sakuwaha is quite at home in the fast paced and highly pressured legal world of corporate mergers and acquisitions.
For one who “stumbled upon the profession by accident”, the mom of two young boys - who now has 16 years experience under her belt - has achieved great success.
A partner at Corpus Legal Practitioners, based in the capital Lusaka, her “meticulous” approach to work and life has resulted in her being listed on several prestigious guides to leading lawyers, including the Legal 500, Chambers Global Guide and the IFLR1000.
But, as many good leaders admit, she says she is only as “good as my team”.
“Yes, the deals, the challenging transactions and the risks keep me awake at night.
“But I also worry about people issues. Am I doing enough to ensure my team is cohesive and motivated enough to deliver the best experience to clients?”
“On top of that, it’s hard to be a woman in the legal profession as the world of business is still largely dominated by men. One must constantly struggle with both conscious and unconscious bias.”
But Sakuwaha can hold her own and says she loves working in Africa because of “the spirit of Ubuntu (I am because we are)” - a common thread that runs across most African cultures which makes one feel comfortable regardless of where you are from or which part of the continent you are in.
As a specialist in corporate mergers and acquisitions, she works on both public and private projects across all industry sectors, capital markets, private equity, joint ventures, corporate restructuring, general corporate and securities law.
“I am most proud of my role on the successful reorganisation of China Nonferrous Metal’s four Zambian copper assets and the successful $2 Billion IPO and listing of the holding company on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.
“The magnitude of the transaction and the preparatory regulatory work that went into ensuring a successful listing, notwithstanding the challenges, is something to be proud of.
“We worked on this transaction with multiple legal and investment banking teams across different time zones over two years.”
Sakuwaha also played a leading role in advising ZCCM Investments Holdings Plc on a $409 million recapitalisation by way of a claw back rights issue and debt to equity conversion.
“The transaction resulted in the elimination of ZCCM’s historic liabilities to the Zambian government and the first ever dividend payout to shareholders.
“This presented an opportunity to assist the client with navigating the regulatory complexities as well as contractual obligations arising from historical agreements.”
She says that with the shift towards “indigenization” or local content laws gaining momentum in one form or the other, Zambia is one of the few countries in Africa that offers the most conducive environment for foreign direct investment (FDI).
“For instance, there are no equity ownership restrictions on foreign investors in most industry sectors except perhaps the mining sector to a very limited extent.
“There are no exchange controls or restrictions on the repatriation of profits. There are no peculiar procedures imposed on foreign investors seeking to incorporate a subsidiary.
“While these measures are important because of the competition among countries for FDI inflows, studies have shown that factors such as market size and growth potential continue to be the main drivers of FDI.
“For instance, there are countries with local content laws that continue to record strong FDI inflows. It is important to strive to strike a balance. Nigeria is a good example of a country that is striving to achieve that balance, measured by the FDI inflows it continues to attract.”
Looking forward, Sakuwaha says the future of the legal profession is “technology driven”.
“The opportunity for the legal profession on the continent lies in harnessing the efficiencies that technology provides and seizing the opportunity to focus on being innovative in a way that creates value for clients.
“Most of the mundane work we do, especially in the compliance, contract, and regulatory areas, will be automated by artificial intelligence and software in a few years’ time and lawyers will need to demonstrate the ability to do more than the computer can do.
“We need to innovate and be more creative in our approaches to collaborate, design, and deliver better value for clients.
“We also need to be specialists and augment our legal knowledge with other skills like project management, business acumen, cultural awareness and emotional intelligence to deliver creative solutions, we are after all paid to provide solutions.”
She cautions those wanting to do business in Africa, to “do your homework”.
“Authentic local insights and legal advice is critical.
“There is a difference between reading a statute and the awareness that comes with being on the ground in-country.
“Local lawyers always have a greater awareness and understanding of the local nuances in terms of how legislation is applied and interpreted by regulators.
“There are often grey areas in the law either because of the way legislation is drafted or the regulator may adopt a stricter interpretation.
“Society, business and technology is evolving at a fast pace. Legislation often lags and does not always adequately provide for business. Before there is judicial pronouncement on the interpretation of legislation what is prevailing in practice on the ground will apply.”
Sakuwaha says businesses that do well in Africa realise that the “one size fits all, cookie cutter approach” does not work.
“Africa is not one country but comprises of 53 countries, each with its own nuances in terms of practice, approach and culture. To be successful a business must adjust and tailor its strategies, culture and policies accordingly.”
On a personal level, Sakuwaha is not sure that she has got the businesswoman/mom balance right.
“The biggest hurdle I face is juggling motherhood and career.
“I am kept awake wondering whether I have been a good mother to my two young sons aged 3 and 8 , by choosing to pursue a career in a fast-paced private practice.
“Am I spending enough time with them and instilling the right values that will adequately prepare them for the future?
“I try to achieve the ever-elusive work life balance by being deliberate about carving out time to spend with family. This involves unplugging from technology and being fully present in that moment.”
Sharon Sakuwaha’s top tips for women entering or in the legal profession.
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