CDH’S BRENT WILLIAMS – “BUILDING A CULTURE OF SERVICE FROM THE ENTRANCE BOOM TO THE TOP FLOOR”

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Brent Williams- Preferred photo

Brent began his career in 1989 as a candidate attorney at Y Ebrahim & Co where he was appointed as an associate, becoming a director in 1995, whereupon he conducted a human rights/public law and generalist commercial practice. In 2003, Y Ebrahim & Co was absorbed into the practice of Cliffe Dekker -now Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr (CDH).  He joined as a director in its Corporate and Commercial practice area, also becoming involved in the firm’s management committee a year later. Brent joined the Johannesburg office Corporate and Commercial department at the end of 2007.  He was elected the firm’s CEO (managing partner) with effect from 1 April 2011 and is currently serving a second 4 year term in that role. Brent has held a number of board positions in civil society NGO’s and has been the Chairman of listed Sephaku Holdings since March 2012.

He spoke to SAProfessionals.com in July 2016.

What does it mean to you that your colleagues entrusted you with the position of CEO?

Initially when I was approached by colleagues to put myself forward for the position, while humbling, it also presented me with a serious dilemma because I enjoyed practicing law (at that stage almost exclusively M&A/capital markets and commercial law) and this is a strictly non-practicing role. There was also a question of skill sets required for an executive management role in a professional services firm. While as a practising lawyer I had developed my technical skills to serve clients in the areas that I practised and while I had been involved in the firm’s (non- executive) management for almost 8 years and had received some external training regarding the management of professional services firms, I had not been trained/prepared to take on this particular role. This is a challenge for most law firms which still mostly appoint lawyers as their managing partners (and who are often also from amongst their ranks) and this is typically a problem for every practising lawyer who is asked to take on a managing role. Naturally, a large firm (by South African standards) like CDH is much more demanding to manage than a small law firm (which I had previously managed), comes with multiple layers of complexity as well as a sophistication that demands a particular standard of service.

When do you foresee yourself leaving the position of CEO and what would you like to have achieved by then?

I am about a year and a half into my second four-year term as CEO which expires at the end of the 2019 financial year.  By then the time would have arisen for “fresh blood”, energy and thinking and hopefully the firm’s needs would have evolved by then so that new skill sets for its executive management will be appropriate. By then, I would hope that CDH has entrenched its position among the top tier law firms in South Africa. I would like us to achieve and maintain a positioning among the top 3 top tier South African law firms in terms of market perception and brand positioning.

What would you say have been the highs and the lows of your career at CDH?

A significant milestone is that we have dominated the capital markets business for the past six years in a row, mostly by volume of transactions and but often by value (at least among the top 3) too. I don’t think any of our competitors can claim to have outdone us in terms of the listed transactional work whether by volume, sector or complexity save for their involvement in the SAB Miller Anheuser-Busch Inbev global transaction that has a relatively small SA component (compared to the overall size of that transaction). We always feature in the top three of the main legal service providers when it comes to the South African Dealmaker Awards.  I am proud of the fact that we continue to be relevant in the market in an area for which our firm has renowned capability and strength.  It has taken collective effort by our firm’s partners to achieve such an incredible and sustained performance.  I think our performance is unrivalled in South African corporate law firm history (at least since the introduction of the awards which tracks listed transactional legal work). Another high for me is the speed and efficiency with which we rebranded and navigated our separation during 2015 from the global law firm with which we had had a relationship for 10 years.  There was significant reputational and other risk to our firm in managing that process and it was certainly not an easy feat to pull out of a global organisation while maintaining a positive perception of our firm in the market. One year on, I believe we have lived to tell the tale and better still, thrive!

One of the lows relates to a period a year after I had taken over when a group of our partners were involved in an accident. One senior partner died and another senior partner was so severely injured that he was unable to return to the thriving practice he once had. Both partners were very important contributors in our dispute resolution practice and the entire experience was emotionally and psychologically traumatising to our firm which has a reputation for its extraordinary collegiality. Shortly thereafter, two other partners and their team of associates in our Corporate and Commercial department resigned to join a competitor firm. That was one of the hardest periods of my life and it was as though we as a firm and I personally were facing the perfect storm while I was still “fresh at the wheel”. As the first black managing partner of a top six law firm, I felt tremendous pressure to step up in every way possible.  I am grateful that my colleagues supported me and we have lived through that.  The wonderful thing (with hindsight) about such challenges is that one gets to explore your personal and organizational depths and resolve not to fail.  Again, in living through that time we have become stronger but in doing so we have also earned the right to confront new challenges.  And so the growth and developmental cycle continues.

Do you take part in mentorship?

Our firm has both a formal and informal mentorship programme in which partners and associates participate as mentors and mentees and to which partners and associates make themselves available. I have taken part both formally and informally in mentoring a number of lawyers, some of whom have left the firm but still call on me from time to time and some of whom have returned to our firm after having left. I regard it as a responsibility to assist young(er) lawyers to navigate the challenging environment that is corporate law today, and which places similar significance on the business of law and entrepreneurialism as it does on technical ability and track record. Mentorship and the need for it assumes particular salience for black (and black African lawyers, in particular) because they battle the systemic transformation challenges, “black” ceilings and unarticulated prejudices in a corporate law firm environment. It therefore requires sustained effort and support from firm’s like ours in order that their potential be realised. To be absolutely clear, it is not that black lawyers enter environments like ours as graduates with less capabilities than others, because they do not!  These challenges are predominantly about corporate law firms’ inability (and sometimes, plain unwillingness) to embrace a more inclusive approach to the training of all younger lawyers – an approach that should be the bedrock of proper training, learning opportunities and firm sustainability. Effective mentorship is one of the ways the challenges that firms like ours still face are mitigated.

What makes you tick or keeps you awake at night?

The challenges and change that law firms are going through can be very stimulating on the one hand but also debilitating on the other. There is little that is predictable regarding the future profitability and sustainability of certainly large law firms. We face multiple competitors (from within and outside our discipline), pressures from clients around demonstrable value add (as opposed to just appropriate and sound legal advice) and transparency regarding the way in which we cost services.  This significantly elevates the pressure to make choices regarding what area/s of legal services a firm chooses to compete in, which others to invest in and then, how those services are innovated, priced and delivered at a consistently premium quality and to differentiate why we ought to be a client’s preferred choice as trusted corporate legal advisor.  All of this in a weak local, regional and global economic environment, but yet our daily bread is about meeting client expectation of ever faster and more efficient service.  It calls for a level of agility and a learnt ability to confront and manage disruptive technologies and approaches to the delivery of the legal services in ways that cause significant discomfort for lawyers.  Stated differently, the relative stability enjoyed by established large law firms at the top tier of our market is no longer there and considerable and constant re-imagining of the future of corporate law practice is now the order of the day. Then, transformation within our firm (and the wider corporate legal sector) remains a profound challenge – I deal with this below.

How has your firm fared in terms of business growth?

We have been growing our revenue base at an annual average rate of approximately 10% for the past 6.5 years. I consider this a robust performance given that this period covers the immediate aftermath of the global financial crises, severely slowing SA GDP (in the low single digits) for the past few years and which analysts are forecasting at 0% (SA GDP growth) for the current fiscal year and tenacious competition for work that now characterises the market for corporate legal services.  Since this performance also occurred in an environment of elevated competition from international law firms (13 at the last count with 9 having entered in the last 24 months) it is noteworthy.  Some of the recent major transactions that we have advised on over the past few months included a major healthcare client’s foray into the Middle East, an integrated furniture manufacturer’s expansion into Europe and Eastern Europe, the acquisition by a mobile major of a local fixed line operator and a significant private equity player’s IPO.

How do you and your firm view transformation?

Transformation within the context of South Africa’s history is as much a constitutional imperative as it is a social justice one.  There have been numerous surveys of the corporate legal profession over the past few years that speak to the skewed demographics in corporate law firms. This is not to say that there has not been an effort to effect this kind of change – many black partners at CDH (“African”, “Coloured” and “Indian”) who have been with the firm for periods of up to 18 years (a few of whom since having been articled and associates at the firm and its legacy firms) have significant standing in their respective disciplines, are rated in international ratings journals and can certainly ascribe a significant portion of their progress and development to the opportunities and training they were exposed to at our firm.  None of this detracts from the fact that the corporate law firm sector has failed dismally (including CDH) to develop and graduate a material cohort of black “African” lawyers through our junior ranks to partners.  Again, this is not for lack of trying and over many years CDH has had organizational structures whose purpose is to address such issues and, has embarked upon various initiatives and interventions to address this state of affairs.  The fact that persistent under-representation of black African legal professionals relative to their graduate cohort from the academy and among senior associate and partner ranks (relative to the latter respective cohort sizes with firms) is also generally true of most large professional services firms (all disciplines) and indeed, the financial sector, is cold comfort for us. So too, is the fact that 56% of our candidate attorney (CA) intake is black, 55% of our associates are black, 40% of our senior associates are black and 28% of our partners are black and 25% of our partner profits accrue to black partners (the actual percentage of everything they earn (salary and profit share) in our firm as a percentage of the total earnings of all salary and profit share of all CDH partners.  These statistics while not insignificant, mask the fact that across various professional levels within our firm black “African” professionals remain under-represented.  Various fresh and multi-faceted initiatives have been developed to try improve the firm’s performance in this regard in order that we can get closer to our goal of becoming a truly South African firm that is also truly representative of our country’s people and where the salience of “race” is less pronounced.  All of which is to say that we are constantly in danger of re-inscribing Apartheid terminology on our professionals when the purpose of what is being attempted to be done is precisely the opposite – namely, to address the exclusion of black people and black “African” people specifically, that is our corporate legal profession’s sad heritage. There is no question in my mind that we have to do better and our newest initiatives include addressing issues more widely than just our firm, including supporting the academies at the law faculties from whom most of our graduates are drawn with financial support for black African law graduates (partially in response to the #FeesMustFall), supporting black pupils and advocates (the bar) in a pilot collaboration with Advocates for Transformation and addressing our firm’s briefing patterns of black advocates as part of that collaboration; and internally within our firm utilising various monitoring tools (and metrics) to assess black professional exposure to appropriate training and exposure.  We will know in time whether one or more of these (hopefully, all) yield results that suggest wider replication will be beneficial.

How would you describe your management style?

I have an open door policy. I am far from managerialist and with my (lapsed) “activist lawyer” background I believe in a flat hierarchy, robust debate and participation by all stakeholders within the firm (it’s not just about the partners & owners) in the life of the firm, its challenges and its successes. We have worked hard at achieving a culture of universal respect (regardless of “rank”, professional status or qualification), collegiality, confidence measured with humility and a spirit of “family” despite our firm’s size.  I hold a town hall style meeting with all employees at least once every quarter in which the whole firm participates. In addition to the town halls, I also meet with various professional cohorts (CA’s and associates) and support services periodically to take input and feedback regarding aspects of what do as a firm that can be improved. We understand that everyone in our firm is fundamental to the execution of our strategy and the delivery of service to our clients – hence a culture of service from the entrance boom the top floor. We work hard at a no-nonsense and unfussy service orientation that permeates every aspect of how we do business and deal with our clients and colleagues at other firms.  This pretty much sums up how I perceive my role at the firm, which is to serve my partners and professionals and support staff in a way that enables them to perform optimally.  Whether I succeed at doing that is a different matter! (laughs).

 

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