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September 9, 2008 5:55 PM

Hunton & Williams Strengthens Ties to Africa

Posted by Zach Lowe

John Beardsworth, Jr., head of Hunton & Williams's emerging markets practices, remembers being one of the only big-firm lawyers working in Africa in 1991. Nearly two decades later, he sees a rush of major law firms seeking a piece of Africa's growing energy market--a realization that he admits helped push Hunton to sign a memorandum of understanding with Mkono & Co. Advocates, East Africa's largest law firm.

"Ten years ago, it was us and a bunch of intrepid aid workers," says Beardsworth, a U.S.–based partner who works often in Africa, mostly representing the government of Tanzania in development deals. "But now I'm beginning to see a lot more of our competition here."

One problem: Mkono has had a similar agreement in place with the U.K. firm Denton Wilde Sapte for eight years, says Howard Barrie, head of Denton's Africa practice.

And Denton is none too pleased with Mkono's decision to partner, nonexclusively, with Hunton.

"You can understand in our position why we're going to be interested in how we are affected by this," Barrie says.

In fact, Denton is considering severing its relationship with Mkono and looking elsewhere, according to a statement from the firm. Candidates include the Kenyan firm Hamilton Harrison & Matthews, one of a half-dozen African firms Denton has worked with for years, according to a Legal Week story from 2006.

Denton's unhappiness hasn't escaped Beardsworth's attention.

"I'm certainly hearing rumblings that it's not fine with Denton," he says of the new Mkono agreement. "But this is not their deal."

Such is the new competitive landscape in Africa, says Chadbourne & Parke partner Robin Mizrahi, who has been working on Africa deals for the last decade.

"Hunton is right," in moving to shore up its stake in Africa, says Mizrahi, who has been "across the table" from Beardsworth before, while representing private equity firms dealing with state-owned enterprises. "I'm glad we got here early, because we're definitely starting to see some of the main Magic Circle and U.S. law firms here."

Mizrahi says Linklaters has been noticeably more active in Africa recently. Other Magic Circle firms have, too, Mizrahi says, though he declined to name them. Beardsworth says he's seen a lot more of White & Case, which has an office in South Africa.

Recent events prove there is big money to be made in Africa for dealmaking lawyers. Late last year a series of donors, including the World Bank and the Blackstone Group worked with the Ugandan government to start construction on a $870 million-plus hydroelectric dam there.

Chadbourne represented much of the private equity behind the deal, Mizrahi says; Beardsworth and Hunton represented the Ugandan government in the same project. Right now, Chadbourne is advising the Moroccan government's state-owned electric company as it seeks financing for a 1,300-megawatt power plant that is expected to cost $2 billion, Mizrahi says.

It is deals of that size that Beardsworth envisions Hunton landing thanks to its new alliance with Tanzania-based Mkono.

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