DLA PIPER is an international law firm that is active in more than 40 countries across the world. DLA Piper South Africa was established on 1 June 2016 as a completely greenfields project. The business is small but a growing legal practice locally.
SAprofessionals.com spoke to Director and Country Managing Partner, Johannes Gouws, about his personal, professional and entrepreneurial journey since joining the firm.
Tell us about your early life to your role today –
After high school, I went on to do my undergraduate studies at the University of Pretoria. I did my articles at a Johannesburg law firm called Hofmeyr van der Merwe. Back then I thought I would end up as an academic. At the end of my articles, I applied for a lecturer position in the Department of Private Law at the University of Pretoria but ended up getting a job as a lecturer at the Department of Mercantile and Labour Law. It turned out to be a stroke of luck in that I enjoyed the people and course content much more than I could have ever imagined. I also discovered though that I was not cut out to be an academic because I didn’t really like the research side of the job and struggled to deal with the lack of client pressure. I guess that is when I discovered that I thrive under pressure and was happiest in pressured environments.
After about 18 months as a lecturer I was lucky enough to be approached by my previous employer with whom I still had a very good relationship. They wanted me to rejoin the firm and I was happy to return to the litigation department of the firm. I worked in the litigation practice for about 18 months and then joined the corporate practice where I became partner in 2000. I joined ABSA in 2006 as their general counsel. After the stint at ABSA I joined Webber Wentzel as a partner on 1 August 2008. I worked at Webber Wentzel until I joined DLA Piper in June 2016.
What was your training like?
My training in these various divisions and institutions was very good. My role as a lecturer exposed me to the subject matter in much more detail than studying at university did, so I had a great theoretical foundation thereafter. I also learnt a lot from all the senior practitioners that I worked with in the respective firms. Experience is valuable in the legal space.
What does it mean to you that your colleagues have entrusted you with your current position of Country Managing Partner in the organisation?
It is an honour and privilege. It is also a great responsibility because I have overall responsibility for the financial success of the South African business. From a structural perspective I have colleagues reporting directly to me and with them I manage the day-to-day operations of the office. Although I am the manager I am also still a fee earner which I enjoy and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
What would you like to have achieved by the end of your term?
I would like DLA Piper South Africa to have been firmly established on a sustainable footing and would also want us to be recognized by our peers as a serious competitor in the South African legal market.
I am a firm believer in proper succession planning and would therefore also like to be in a position where I have done the necessary work to ensure a smooth transition. We have many talented people in our organization and they must be able to see the opportunity for them to grow into new roles.
How would you describe your management and leadership style?
I believe in leading by example and that you must practice what you preach. A manager must also focus on doing what he or she can to help all the people in the organisation to reach their full potential. My style is collaborative and I generally try to get buy in from the people I work with so that decisions can be accepted by people as their own. Having said that I am not scared to take tough decisions when required since you cannot always please everyone.
What makes you tick or keeps you awake at night with respect to your position?
We have a staff complement of about 50 employees now so building a business from the start-up phase has been very fulfilling. It has involved lots of hard work and has been very exhausting at times. But a lot of fun. Fortunately we have had great support of from the international firm which has helped us a lot through this growth phase. As a person I am happier when things are hectic and I am intellectually stimulated. I thoroughly enjoy legal practice and also enjoy the recruitment processes we go through to make sure we have the right people for the firm. I particularly enjoy creating and maintaining a good working culture.
How have you taken part in mentoring others?
All senior practitioners will work with junior practitioners at some stage and will therefore play a mentoring role. Be it at the induction or training stage, coaching, or perhaps helping with career plans and giving guidance on the industry. All junior fee earners in our firm are allocated to a senior practitioner who acts as their mentors and who “look after them”. More informally, we have a culture of sharing and learning from one another. I guess it’s the function of our size as an organisation.
If you had to relate a couple of experiences, what would be the highs and what would be the lows of your working career?
From a professional perspective the highlight was definitely when I had to lead a legal team responsible for the resolution of African Bank. It was an incredible experience with lots responsibility and unique legal challenges. The calibre of people we worked with from the Reserve Bank, PwC, African Bank and others was exceptional.
Joining DLA Piper in 2016 has given me international exposure that I will always cherish. Many of the people from all over the world that I have met as colleagues since I have joined have now become friends and that is incredible.
What notable accolades have you and your organisation achieved?
In 2018, we were recognized at the DealMakers Awards for having acted as legal advisors on the Private Equity Deal of the Year. We have also done very well, despite being a small practice if one considers the public and private mandates we have been engaged on.
How has the firm fared in terms of achieving its business growth?
We have every year exceeded expectations while growing steadily. We have a low staff turnover and a very good organizational culture which means that we are well positioned for the future. I am happy that we are on a strong growth trajectory.
Through what means does the organisation ensure that the firm maintains high levels of ethics and integrity?
We try to make sure we employ the right people. When you employ the right people you should not have to worry about maintaining high levels of ethics and integrity.
Is transformation considered a key objective at the firm, and if so, how is it attended to?
Transformation is always a standing item on our directors’ agenda from the recruitment which reflect the demographics of our society and the culture which should inclusive, fair and equitable. Our employees at the lower ranks own 25% shareholding, so the longer you are in employment; you have a valuable interest in the business.
Highlight some recent contributions by the firm to the community and to the relevant profession your professionals are part of.
DLA Piper has a well developed and extensive pro-bono practice. The DLA Piper SA office has contributed to the work done by that practice. We have also been involved in other initiatives, for example when Cyclone Idai hit Mozambique; we worked with our colleagues in Maputo to contribute financially to the relief effort. Some of our staff members also started a drive to collect and donate clothes and blankets to homeless people who live in the vicinity of our office. In terms of the profession, we recruit and train as many people as our budget allows.
How does the firm ensure that professionalism and good customer service are upheld?
It is all about recruiting the right people. If you have the right people working for your firm, like we do, you can rest assured that your customer services and professionalism will be first class.
What values do you hold dear and why?
I have always been a cynic whenever it came to values. However, in 2018, DLA Piper adopted four values that I completely identify with. These values are: Be Bold, Be Exceptional, Be Supportive, and Be Collaborative. I strive to live by these values. Also organizational culture is very important to me. We have worked very hard to establish a culture where, amongst other things, nobody in the firm is more important than anyone else and teamwork takes precedence over building individual careers. We also try to keep perspective about what we are busy with and as part of this we recognise that the people who work for the firm have other important priorities outside of the firm like their families and their health.
When you are not at work, what do you get up to, including family life?
I like to spend time with family whenever I can. I also love to read and try to do so every day. Last year I took up running to try and remain active and to help with stress and I am proud to report that I have already done three slow half marathons. One of the things I love about running is being alone on the road to think and to try and put things into perspective. I also love watching sport and I am an absolute car fanatic.