BAKER McKENZIE is one of the world’s largest law firms, established in Chicago in 1949 with the intention of being truly global in its genetic make-up. Baker McKenzie has a strong culture of collaboration – a diverse team of global lawyers work together extremely well across multiple borders and stay ahead of the pack by utilising the very latest innovation, to deliver the best service to its clients.
Law firms are facing the challenges of modernising their businesses, so that they are able deliver on client expectations. As such, Baker McKenzie‘s definition of the “new lawyer” means that its lawyers are trained in a different way, to deliver a new kind of legal service to its clients. The firm defines new lawyers as those who collaborate remarkably well across borders, markets and industries, take the time to understand clients and the industries in which they operate, and who embrace new ideas, emerging technologies and innovation to give clients confidence in uncertain times.
The South African Professional Services Academy spoke to Morné van der Merwe, Managing Partner of Baker McKenzie‘s Johannesburg office and head of its Corporate and M&A Practice Group.
Tell us your brief history: academic and professional and your role today
When I was younger, I actually dreamed of becoming a farmer, spending lots of time on a family Karoo farm. This dream did not come to fruition and inspired by the stories of accomplishments of my great grandfather who was a lawyer in the small Karoo town of Jansenville, I shifted my ambitions to becoming a lawyer. I have not looked back. I enrolled for a BA LLB degree at Stellenbosch University. During my degree, I was actively involved in student politics and was a member of the Student Representative Council, in my final year as vice chair. It was a turbulent time in our history, Nelson Mandela had not yet been released from prison, a strong liberal movement was growing, and we felt our role as student leaders at the time was to help shift mind-sets and expectations in preparation for the exciting new dispensation in our country. This was the period during which the Stellenbosch SRC was having meetings with the ANC (at that stage a banned political organisation) in Lusaka. Once I graduated, I completed my articles with Werksmans, where I stayed for 18 years. By the time I left to join Baker McKenzie in 2012, I was part of the Werksmans executive team. Prior to my departure, I was very involved in the merger between Werksmans and the Cape Town based firm, Jan S de Villiers.
Over and above my role as Managing Partner at Baker McKenzie, my practice in the M&A Practice Group comprises assisting clients in matters involving cross border transactional mandates, public and private mergers and acquisitions, securities law, mining transactions, Black Economic Empowerment transactions, capital markets, corporate finance and structuring, leveraged and management buy-outs and private equity transactions.
What does it mean to you that your colleagues have entrusted you with the position of Managing Partner?
I was appointed Co-Managing Partner of the firm in 2016 and became the sole Managing Partner a year later, in 2017. It is a great honour and privilege to be in this role. The position fills me with a huge sense of responsibility. It is exciting and it’s a great opportunity for me to disrupt the profession in a positive way. The position allows for innovation and enables me to bring a positive energy to the practice. Managing Partners today are leading firms through complex changes and it is a challenge to steer the firm and its employees through a challenging and rapidly changing environment, whilst ensuring that the firm’s energy remains positive and fulfilling for all who work here.
What would you like to have achieved by the end of your term?
One is elected into the position to fulfil a leadership role and my goal is to leave a legacy, where it is clear that I have maintained and promoted a truly international, innovative and integrated offering – all across Africa. I would like to see a practice that embodies a healthy and thriving corporate culture, and a team that lives by the Baker McKenzie values and is proud of our firm and its accomplishments. I would like the firm to be fully inclusive and to cater for a diverse and happy workforce. Our lawyers should be fully equipped to work fluently across borders and the practice should of course be financially sound and sustainable.
How would you describe your management and leadership styles?
I’d like to think my leadership is authentic, and that it is one of stewardship. I believe you should never be someone you are not, and that clear and direct communication is vital so that we all know how we are going to achieve our goals. I like to get regular feedback from my team and I am always tracking progress on targets in order to help our team to succeed. I have reached the stage of my career where I measure my success by the role I have played in making others successful. I set high standards and enjoy leading and working with high-performance, ambitious teams.
What makes you tick or keeps you awake at night with respect to your position?
I feel my sense of purpose is that I want to make a difference in people’s lives. Ultimately, I enjoy being in the profession as it is about solving problems and by so doing, making a positive contribution to the lives of those we are serving. I enjoy assessing complex environments and finding ways to simplify the navigation thereof. In addition, I need to serve my purpose as Managing Partner, which means fulfilling the firm’s global purpose. I am always concerned about how effective I am in building others up and what more I could be doing to help them to be successful, both in my personal and professional capacity. And generally, I worry about the state of the South African economy – the political uncertainty, the narrative of corruption, state capture and the deteriorating state of our education system. I console myself with the fact that there are still so many exciting opportunities in this country, and that we have the right leadership and are on the right track to recover from a challenging period in our country’s history. In order to be part of the solution, one needs to be mindful of the corporate environment and how it is influenced by the surrounding political environment, and one needs to embrace the strength that can be harnessed through diversity, as opposed to allowing it to become political and divisive.
How do you take part in mentoring others?
We have a formalised mentorship structure, where people meet on a regular basis to connect and help each other with their career paths – harvesting and giving feedback on a regular basis is central to this programme. Trust is very important in any mentoring relationship, and I see mentoring as a great enabler for the development of future leadership. There are informal mentorship opportunities as well. In this regard, I believe in showing empathy and caring about the personal and professional journeys of my colleagues. I endeavour to create an environment conducive to learning and sharing, always mindful of any teaching, training, nurturing and coaching opportunities which may present itself in simple day to day interactions and occurrences.
Can you name a highlight of your working career?
A career highlight for me so far would be my successful career at Werkmans. I will always owe the firm a debt of gratitude for the opportunities, development and training I received, and the good friendships developed, which still exist today. Further, being part of the founding team of Baker McKenzie in Johannesburg, and then being tasked with the leadership role I am fulfilling at the moment, stands out as a career highlight and something I am very proud of.
What accolades have you and your organization received recently?
Morne van der Merwe:
Ranked in Chambers and Partners 2018 (Energy and Natural Resources, Mining and Corporate/M&A)
Ranked in Legal 500 for (i) Corporate/M&A and (ii) Mining 2017,
Leading Lawyer, IFLR1000 for (i) M&A and (ii) Energy & Infrastructure 2017,
Listed in Acritas Stars Report 2018.
The firm in Africa
In September 2018 the firm won the International Law Firm of the Year Award at Legal Week’s African Legal Awards ceremony for the second year in a row. This is the third time the firm won the award, having received it in 2017 and before that, in 2015.
The firm was highly commended in the Transportation and Infrastructure category for the advisory work on the organization of the railroad between Côte d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso.
In September 2018 the firm was awarded Bronze status in The South African Workplace Equality Index 2018, the only law firm to be tiered. The Index is South Africa’s first LGBT+ Index. Leading the market in terms of our LGBT+ strategy is something we are very proud of and something we plan to build on in the coming years.
The firm won the African Legal Award for International Law Firm of the Year in 2017 as well. In addition it won the Award for Environmental, Energy and Natural Resources Team of the Year and the CSR, Diversity, Transformation and Economic Empowerment Award.
In 2017 ProBono.Org, a South African NGO, recognised the firm for its, “willingness to provide ongoing legal support to ProBono.Org.”
The firm was identified as the “leading international firm for high value work across Africa” according to Acritas’ 2016 report: Sharp-legal Global Elite 2016 Africa.
Baker McKenzie continues to retain its position as the world’s strongest law firm brand in the Acritas Global Elite Law Firm Brand Index.
How has the firm fared in terms of achieving its business growth objectives?
In the last financial year, the global firm announced record revenues of $2.9 billion and we have seen a significant increase in our Africa-related revenues. This is demonstrated by increased Africa related billings, matter appointments, panel wins, RFPs received, and referral requests both from and to our African Relationship Firms. The Johannesburg office revenue has grown by an average of 30% year-on-year from Financial Year 2013 to Financial Year 2018.
We launched in May 2012 with 31 lawyers and staff, we have since grown to more than 100 lawyers and staff.
Through what means does the organization ensure that the firm maintains a high level of ethics and integrity?
We have a Code of Business Conduct so that all our people, lawyers and non-lawyers alike, understand our policies, and the values and principles that are expected to guide our choices. The code is required reading for every partner and employee worldwide. The code spells out our policies, legal and ethical obligations and responsibilities in several areas. It provides guidance on how to act when specific, clear policies are not available. It reflects our commitment as a signatory to the UN Global Compact to align our policies and operations with the UN’s principles in the areas of human rights, fair labour, the environment and anti-corruption.
Is transformation considered a key objective at the firm, and if so, how is it attended to?
We recently launched a Diversity & Inclusion Committee in Johannesburg to further develop and implement our D&I strategy. Leveraging our existing global strategy, we have customized it to cater to our uniquely South African diversity, culture and history. Our aim is to foster a vibrant and energetic environment where individuals across all demographics, from all backgrounds and cultures may develop and succeed professionally and contribute meaningfully to the strategic objectives of the firm.
Employment Equity is a key development area for us, and we are committed to constantly improving and developing our initiatives with regards to employment equity, preferential procurement, skills development; enterprise development and social economic development.
We are actively working towards increasing our BEE rating and recently established an Employment Equity Task Team to assess and improve on this. Our skills development initiatives include training programmes designed to grow and develop our lawyers. Our junior lawyers undergo Practical Legal Training to prepare them for their board exams. We offer all employees practice and industry specific training; career development training as well as targeted global training. We also offer mentorship and training to disadvantaged law students. Very often, the training and development that we offer our people involves international training and development opportunities.
What are some of the recent contributions by the firm to the community and to the relevant professions that your professionals are a part of?
We understand that our responsibility as a legal service provider goes beyond advising clients. Helping the communities in which we operate has always been an integral component of our work. Placing corporate social responsibility at the forefront of what we do has also forged powerful affinities with our clients who share the same commitment to social justice.
We have worked on many worthwhile initiatives in Africa that have impacted on essential issues such as water security, the development of solar power, the protection of street children, the rights of LGBT+ individuals and research into sextortion and corruption. In this regard, we are representing members of the LGBT+ community of the Dutch Reformed Church on a pro bono basis in relation to certain policies of the church, challenging the constitutionality of such policies and decisions.
We volunteer on a weekly basis at the Probono Help Desk at the Gauteng High Court. The helpdesk assists indigent clients to navigate the complexities of the High Court system and legal disputes.
We partner with St. Vincent’s School for the Deaf. We have implemented several initiatives at the school since January 2015 including weekly food donations, renovating and equipping classrooms and the playground, sponsoring outings and parties, providing new school wear and offering our pro bono legal services to the school when required.
The firm is working with the Dischem Foundation on its One Million Comforts Campaign, which aims to collect six million sanitary towels this year for school girls who would otherwise not have access to these products.
How does the firm ensure that professionalism and good customer service are upheld?
Clients define the market for legal services, not law firms. Being part of a global law firm means having a seamless, quality service around the world. We have a distinctive global way of thinking, working and behaving called “fluency” – across borders, issues and practices. This fluency is what clients want in Africa.
Our entire strategy is client-focused. Where our clients go, we are there to support them. It is our ability to listen – and then respond – to client needs quickly and on a global scale across borders that sets us apart. Client service delivery is everything – which is why as a firm we invest in developing client relationships, and in innovative learning and development programmes.
Bakers was the first truly international firm, and as such the “original disruptors”. We are positioning ourselves as the “new lawyers” with greater focus and emphasis on modernising the manner in which we practice and deliver on the demands of our clients, having regard to enablers such as innovation, integration and alternative service delivery, and pricing/billing models.
What do you do in your spare time and where can people follow you online?
As a husband and father, I have to make sure I balance work and home life. As a family, we enjoy outdoor life, photography, hiking and mountain biking. I do yoga once or twice a week when I can. I am involved in nature conservation projects. And on occasion, I have received accolades for my ability to make a mean “potjie”. To find out more about Baker McKenzie, go to www.bakermckenzie.com or find me on LinkedIn – Morne van der Merwe.