Alan is the Managing Partner of Bowman Gilfillan, a position he has held since 2014. He is ranked by Chambers Global as a leader in his field and by Legal 500 as a leading lawyer, and is also ranked by other legal publications, including Best Lawyers, IFLR and Plc. Alan practices in the fields of corporate law and tax law.
Alan’s regular clients include Standard Bank, SABMiller, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, BP, Barloworld, PPC, AngloGold Ashanti, Marsh and Ericsson. Recent major transactions that Alan has advised on include acting for SABMiller in the formation of its African soft drink joint venture with The Coca Cola Company, and the disposal of its strategic stake in Tsogo Sun Limited and its merger with ABInbev, advising Fountainhead Property Fund in its acquisition by Redefine, advising Standard Bank on various issues relating to its Tutuwa black economic empowerment transaction, and advising BP on the conclusion of its empowerment transaction with Kapela Investments. Alan has advised on the structuring and implementation of numerous significant black economic empowerment transactions in the South African market.
What does it mean to you that your colleagues have entrusted you with the position of CEO?
It is an incredible honour to have been nominated to this position by the board and subsequently voted in by the body of partners to this position in 2014 for a five year term. A professional services firm has different characteristics; on the one hand I felt that there is the pressure that comes with running a business of this size while on the other hand I felt an even greater sense of duty to my partner colleagues. We are a broad firm with different practice areas and operate across a number of cities so it is a position that comes with a heavy load but one that also fills me with great pride. It is an opportunity that I will have to work hard at in order to take our firm forward.
What do you hope to have achieved at the end of your five year term?
A broad objective for my term is to better down our one firm approach across our offices in Africa. I would also like to have seen the firm through the changing environment we are practicing in where we now have to compete with a number of global firms that have entered our market. We need to demonstrate that African players can play a leading role in the practice of law on our continent. On a less specific level, I would like to have added value to our firm. As a professional services organisation it is about the people and it is the duty of each generation to take steps forward and growing. The institution I received was a market leading one so my duty is to keep it moving forward to an even higher level.
What would you say is your leadership and management style?
I like to think that I am direct and engaging. I believe in leading with humility and understanding the challenges and the market in which one operates. I am naturally curious and engaging which I believe is essential given that we operate in an environment that comprises a large number of different areas involving very different people. Our only assets are our people and they work in very specialized and different areas. I may know a lot about the area that I specialized in but I would need to be curious to grasp areas that I am not necessarily familiar with run by people with very different personalities. I believe I also adapt my leadership style depending on the part of the firm I am dealing with.
What qualities do you believe led to your election as CEO?
I had run a successful practice within the firm and worked across many disciplines. I also have good relationships with major clients. I have also had a passion for taking the firm forward from a young age and perhaps my interest in the business of the firm rather than just the practice of law held me in good stead. It is a challenge managing people and finances with limited training in this area, but fortunately I had the opportunity to attend a course at Harvard on the leadership of law firms that has helped a lot.
What events would you cite as the highlights and lowlights of your working career?
I think one of the lows would be coming to work one day and finding the CEO of what was then our biggest client remonstrating with a partner. He felt that a particular transaction had not been handled properly and we needed to work hard to bring the client back on track. The highlight would be the recognition of peers and colleagues including being rated by various legal rating publications, being elected to governance bodies within our firm by colleagues and of course my appointment to the position of managing partner.
How do you take part in mentoring others?
I believe that growing people is critical in our profession. As I said, they are our only asset and therefore it is important to take interest in our junior colleagues. I have found it challenging since becoming managing partner seeing as this role is somewhat different to what our junior lawyers are doing. Despite that, I have maintained a mentoring role with about five key young people who I see having the potential to taking our firm forward in the future.
What makes you tick or should we say what keeps you awake at night?
This is a multifaceted role so I am kept awake by a number of things. Are we doing enough to make our clients keep coming back to us? And that depends on the people we employ and how we treat them. Clients are attracted to smart lawyers who give them the right solutions in the right way. The brand is only as good as the talent of our people and the experience that clients have with them. People related issues therefore keep me awake at night. I do practice about 30% of the time which is important as we need to remain a client centric firm and therefore I need to sustain the relationships that I have. It also keeps me current in a changing and volatile business world.
What accolades have you and the firm won recently?
We were recently ranked the South African law firm of the year by Who’s Who Legal. At the Dealmakers Award we have won the mergers and acquisitions award in Africa for the past two years. This is important for execution of our African strategy, and shows we are getting some things right.
I was lucky enough to receive the Managing Partner of the year for the African continent at the Law Digest Awards last year. That was significant to get recognition from our colleagues and peers on the continent not just in South Africa.
Is transformation a key objective for your firm?
It is an imperative not just an objective. If we don’t get that right it will have major implications for our business. In our market we need to unlock the potential of all the people across demographics. It is a challenge but we have made some significant strides in our firm. Of the South African partners elected to our board four are black South Africans. Keeping talented young black lawyers is a challenge as there is high demand for talented, well trained professionals in the business world. It is sometimes inevitable that we lose good people but we take pride in watching them grow even outside our business. The likes of business magnate Patrice Motsepe and Standard Bank CEO Sim Tshabalala were trained here. There are many others who have gone on to be prominent people in society, and a good professional service firm needs to make a contribution like this.
How does your firm ensure that the professionals within the firm practice ethics and integrity?
A law firm has only its people and its reputation at the end of the day so these characteristics are absolutely essential. They are high on our agenda and the consequences of us being seen to have slipped in any of these areas would be devastating. It is a key focus in both our operations and training. It is something we consistently work at because I don’t think you can never be in a position where you can confidently state that you have created an environment where no ethical challenges exist. We are quick to check inappropriate partner behaviour and we also engage clients on any conduct that concerns us. We are uncompromising as this is essential to our reputation. It needs to be understood that in as much as a client can not to use us anymore, we can also choose not to do business with them if we feel that our integrity is under threat.
How has your firm contributed to the legal profession?
We always make sure we give back to the society and committees. As an example we have a partner who sits on the Law Society Council and we also undertake Pro Bono projects which involve challenges to the rule of law. We invest in the youth and universities by giving bursaries to disadvantaged students. We also give prizes for academic excellence and work with universities to attract students to the law profession which is a long term objective to ensure the sustainability of our profession.
What has been the contribution of Bowman to the community?
Our South African lawyers provided over 8 000 hours of pro bono legal services, valued at approximately R15,9 million for the financial year ending 28 February 2016.
Highlights of our pro bono projects during the year included:
- Supporting about 120 small businesses in Khayelitsha by holding a workshop and delivering an on-site legal clinic through our Ishishini Lethu Project;
- Initiating a sex workers clinic pilot project with the Women’s Legal Centre;
- Assisting in a number of matters in the Children’s Court; and
- Hosting a seminar on sexual reproductive rights for women in Africa with Amnesty International as a parallel event alongside the African Union Summit held in Sandton.
In terms of CSR, we supported 28 small charities – seeking out the smaller, less well-supported organisations to which our funding makes a significant difference. Our partners and staff collaborated with us to participate in a number of memorable events including:
- The Mandela Day outreach to communities;
- The Suits Drive, assisting young lawyers in need;
- The Santa Shoebox Project, which saw all of our South African offices jointly participating; and
- The 16 Days of activism campaign for no violence against women and children.
How has the firm fared in terms of achieving its business growth objectives?
The business environment in recent times has been challenging in Southern Africa but in East Africa we have experienced phenomenal growth. Overall as a group, we have grown well in challenging markets where foreign firms are competing with us, which wasn’t the case five years ago. We have been pleased with how things have gone given that it is not the easiest market right now to post significant growth in Southern Africa.
How comfortable are you with the level of service you are providing to your clients?
We have very little retainer work meaning we need to rely on our clients to continuously choose us. They keep coming back and we keep increasing our client base. That is our main measure. Beyond that the legal rating publications capture feedback from our clients which is a useful external indicator.
What are you passionate about?
I am passionate about South Africa and Africa and our progression. I have a focus on moving forward while acknowledging a difficult past, and feel that sometimes we spend way too much time focussing on a past we all wish was different. I am also passionate about people and our diversity; seeing what different people and cultures can bring to our profession. I believe if we bring the good of all of our different backgrounds together we could be very powerful in making life better for all.