23 March 2006

Cliffe Dekker – one of SA’s most empowered law firms

Transformation of the legal profession will take time and skills, says Cliffe Dekker chairman

Trade and Industry Minister Mandisi Mphalwa has charged South African businesses with putting plans in place to become BEE compliant within the next 10 years. In this respect, law firms find themselves facing similar challenges to those of their clients, with transformation being one of the legal profession’s greatest challenges.

According to Cliffe Dekker chairman, Chris Ewing, “Achieving empowerment in the legal profession is an altogether different matter to doing BEE deals in other business sectors. For the legal profession, transformation requires time and it also requires skills.

“There is no fast track to gaining experience,” says Ewing. “It takes years of intensive training to develop candidate attorneys to the level of expertise necessary to become an equity partner at a commercial law firm.”

Several years ago, the directors of Cliffe Dekker adopted a wide-ranging transformation policy, which, Ewing says, “committed to a number of steps and targets that have borne fruit”. Black professionals now comprise 20% of the firm’s partners – 11% of whom are black women – 35% of its associates and 50% of its candidate attorneys.

Ewing says there is a desperate shortage of qualified commercial lawyers, irrespective of race. Cliffe Dekker’s strategy is to employ the best candidate attorneys it can, based on ability. The firm has devised specific processes to mentor young professionals and ensure their access to clients and work of the quality that will accelerate the development of their expertise.

Ewing says that Cliffe Dekker is in the midst of ongoing diversity awareness and training initiatives involving all the firm’s stakeholders in forthright and constructive debate. “The purpose of this engagement is to place the firm in a position to harness the potential of all its professionals,” Ewing adds.

“We have embarked on special training programmes for our professionals and combine these with continuous ‘knowledge management’ information dissemination to equip them with tools to develop both their professional and life skills.”

“In fact, we are the first law firm in South Africa to appoint a director of the firm to oversee and develop knowledge management on a full time basis.”

Among the benefits of Cliffe Dekker’s partnership with DLA Piper Group, the world’s second largest legal services organisation, is access to international best practice knowledge management systems, and skills transfer.

“This includes secondments of lawyers to international offices and vice-versa. The process has already started. DLA Piper’s London office has expressed high praise for our very first ‘secondee’, a black woman associate in our competition law department. Their feedback demonstrates to us the success of our training programme and the quality of associates employed at Cliffe Dekker,” Ewing says.

Ewing believes that the investment in training has been enormously worthwhile: for three years in a row, Cliffe Dekker has been voted the best large law firm in South Africa in an independent survey of corporate clients. The firm has also been ranked by its peers and clients as having "risen to the top of the M&A premier league" as quoted in the newly published 2006 edition of Chambers Global, Guide to the World’s Leading Lawyers.

As Ewing says, "The process of ongoing change is now an indelible part of our firm culture and has been aligned with our endeavours to be South Africa's premier corporate law firm, offering global competence and employing highly regarded South African lawyers".

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