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January 4, 2012 3:37 PM

Dewey Nabs a Dozen Lawyers from Top South African Firm

Posted by Julie Triedman

In a move that marks its biggest investment yet in Africa, Dewey & LeBoeuf announced Wednesday that it is expanding its existing seven-lawyer Johannesburg office with the addition of eight partners and four associates from Werkmans Attorneys, one of South Africa's leading old-line firms.

The new arrivals make Dewey's South African office one of the largest to be opened in the country by an international law firm. White & Case has seven lawyers in Johannesburg; and DLA Piper, which operates under the Swiss verein structure, is affiliated with 270-lawyer Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr, one of South Africa's largest firms. Two U.K.–based firms, Norton Rose and SNR Denton, have also merged or associated with South African firms in the past two years. 

Among those making the lateral move are Morné van der Merwe, who led Werkmans's mining and resource practice group, and Wildu du Plessis, formerly the head of the South African firm's banking, finance, and capital markets practices. Joining van der Merwe and du Plessis are members of their core deals and finance teams, including partners Chris Moraitis, Astrid Berman, Amelia Heeger, Muhammed Sader, Mike van Rensburg, Esmé Ferreira, and several associates.

While at Werkmans, some members of the group worked on many large South Africa–based mining and resource-related transactions, while others helped jump-start the country's securitization industry or played key roles in major South African infrastructure projects. According to the Werkmans Web site, the firm was ranked first in South Africa for corporate work in 2006, 2007, and 2008; Mergermarket placed Werkmans at the top of its rankings for M&A deal value in the first three quarters of 2011 for the firm's work on 21 transactions.

At Dewey, van der Merwe will serve as cochair of the firm's global natural resources practice alongside Nabil Khodadad. Du Plessis, meanwhile, has been named co–managing partner of Dewey's Johannesburg office, joining Scott Brodsky, Dewey's resident managing partner. 

Joseph Tato, chairman of Dewey's Africa practice group, says he has been talking to van der Merwe and du Plessis about making the lateral move since November 2010, when—with the help of a search consultant—the firm moved to expand its offerings in corporate M&A, mining and natural resources, banking, and finance.

Despite the tightening of credit across Europe—and an accompanying decline in the appetite for investment in the region on the part of European financial institutions—Africa, and particularly sub-Saharan Africa, continued to attract international investors, Tato says.

"There's significant U.S. interest in the region, as well as Asian and Indian interest," says Tato, noting the region's vast energy and mineral reserves, growing middle class, and urgent infrastructure and power needs. "It's really been nonstop."

For his part, van der Merwe says his group was looking for international opportunities when Dewey expressed its interest. Currently, he says, most local lawyers have focused their attention on the South Africa side of transactional work. In the past few years, he notes, that has begun to change, in large part as a result of a surge in resource and infrastructure-related deals in the region.

"It's a mind shift and a paradigm shift to do lawyering on an international scale," van der Merwe says. "But I think that's where the future is. In the South African context, it's becoming more and more apparent that international capabilities are important to being competitive."

Dewey is one of the few large international firms with a long-standing presence in Africa. Until now, much of the firm's work in the region has been tied to the power and project finance sectors, Tato notes. Most recently, Dewey has advised various clients seeking government approval of renewable energy projects—a growing practice area thanks to a new law that requires 8 percent of energy produced in the country to qualify as "renewable" by 2030. (Of the 28 projects approved in the first round of bidding last month, the firm represents 11, Tato says.)

Van der Merwe notes that, among U.S.–based firms, Dewey's decision to recruit his group is unprecedented in its scope. "U.S. firms have arrived, yeah," he says. "But to quote a colleague of mine, 'It's a man and his dog sitting in an office.' The key is to be internationally competitive, but domestically relevant. And to be domestically relevant, you have to have a good, strong base." Beyond that, he adds, "the intent is to grow."

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