WEBBER WENTZEL SENIOR PARTNER CHRISTO ELS

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WEBBER WENTZEL is one of South Africa’s leading law firms providing clients with innovative solutions to their most complex legal issues.

SAprofessionals.com spoke to Senior Partner at Webber Wentzel Christo Els about his personal and professional journey thus far.

Tell us about your early life, your training, and professional development to your role today

I started my career at Webber Wentzel when I joined the firm as a candidate attorney in 1996. As a candidate attorney, we rotate through practice areas to provide exposure to different areas of the law in order to determine our niche – and for me, this was corporate law. The on-the-job training I received shaped my career and I was privileged to work with some of the finest legal minds and on some of the most significant corporate transactions across Sub-Saharan Africa. As my career advanced, I gained extensive experience in participating in all the firm’s management structures and strategic initiatives. I have just been re-elected to serve as Senior Partner for a second five-year-term commencing on 1 March 2020.

I have BLC and LLB degrees, both awarded with distinction by the University of Pretoria, and an LLM, also awarded with distinction, from the University of South Africa. I have completed an executive education program – “Leading Professional Service Firms” – at Harvard Business School.

What inspired you to join the industry?

The legal landscape is continually evolving, which constantly brings new challenges and opportunities. I have always been interested in both business and law and corporate law allows me to be involved in both. We need to develop an exemplary knowledge of current trends and legislative and regulatory developments to be able to advise clients successfully on how to achieve a competitive advantage in the marketplace. We become a strategic partner and adviser on transactions which have a direct impact on the economy and on country.

What does it mean to you that your colleagues have entrusted you with your current position at Webber Wentzel? What does the role mean to you?

It is a privilege to be elected to serve as Senior Partner and it allows me to collaborate with the firm’s leadership in reviewing and refining our strategic objectives to ensure that we remain relevant in a rapidly changing environment. It also allows me to work closely with our clients to reach their strategic goals.

What would you like to have achieved by the end of your term?

My main objectives are to:

  • Provide our clients with the advice necessary to build sustainable businesses. This includes equipping all our practitioners with the requisite skills, behaviours and key account management methodologies to deepen and strengthen client relationships.
  • Ensure that the firm remains a happy place to work for all our partners and employees. It is important to me that notwithstanding our size and increasing corporate structure, that we remain a place where everyone can feel relevant, realise their aspirations and be fulfilled.

How would you describe your management and leadership style?

My style is collaborative. I recognise the importance of interpersonal relationships and cross-functional collaborations to achieve organisational success. Our people are diverse, and all have individual skills across multiple functions, and we need to work together to achieve our goal of excellence in order to best serve the firm and our clients. I encourage individuals at all levels to take initiative and act in a manner that contributes to achieving the overall vision of the firm.

What makes you tick or keeps you awake at night with respect to your position?

One of the challenges in my position is to ensure that the firm adapts to, and navigates through, the broader macroeconomic challenges in our country. We must strive to deliver greater insight and value to our clients and to do that we need to focus on efficiencies, recruiting and retaining talent, and providing alternative legal services.

How have you taken part in mentoring others?

Our law degree teaches us to understand and apply the law, but it does not prepare us to navigate some of the pitfalls to realising our full potential. A mentor can successfully help integrate you into a new role and assist you in cultivating a strong professional network. I have had some wonderful mentors who have helped me enhance my legal skills and, in turn, I have mentored others who have gone on to become partners themselves.

In 2018, I introduced a Transformation Sponsorship Programme to address some key challenges that the firm has experienced over the past few years in the retention of black fee earners. In my experience, having a sponsor that teaches, supports and champions a young lawyer is the most effective way of facilitating career success. The programme aims to address historical challenges through a focused effort on guided leadership, targeted access to quality work and deliberate inclusion in existing client relationships.

There are 39 participants on the programme and in the last financial year, 59% of these participants improved their billings, with a 13% increase in billable hours across the total participant group. We aim to roll this programme out more broadly across the firm soon.

If you had to relate a couple of experiences, what would be the highs and what would be the lows of your working career?

I have worked on some significant and market-leading transactions in my career and my highs come from being able to work with the client and adding value. Lawyers need to be innovative thinkers, problem-solvers and negotiators to achieve a client’s objectives.

Another high is my involvement with our previous senior partner, David Lancaster, in negotiating our alliance agreement with Linklaters.

One of the lows that come to mind happened during my first two years as senior partner. The market saw an influx of new competitors and we had to navigate the firm through some difficult macro-economic times.

What notable accolades have you and your organisation achieved?

The firm dominates the league tables and rankings and we continue to win awards and receive recognition across all our core practice areas. These achievements are made possible by the same fundamentals that have sustained us over the past 150 years; putting our clients at the heart of everything we do, employing the best people, enjoying what we do and shaping the environment in which we practise.

Personally, my corporate and capital markets expertise is consistently recognised by various international research organisations including Chambers Global, Legal 500, IFLR1000, Who’s Who Legal and Best Lawyers.

How has the firm fared in terms of achieving its business growth?

We achieve business growth year on year through a significantly increased focus on client centricity – making sure our clients are at the heart of everything we do. We have a number of programmes in place to ensure that we can deliver on this which includes a Key Client Programme which equips our lawyers with the skills to strengthen client relationships, and a Client Services Efficiency Programme which focuses on improving the efficient and cost-effective delivery of services to clients.

Through what means does the organisation ensure that the firm maintains high levels of ethics and integrity?

Each staff member is expected to live all our values, and these are governed by our employment contract and various policies. We have implemented a zero-tolerance sexual harassment policy and staff members have all attended mandatory training.

Is transformation considered a key objective at the firm, and if so, how is it attended to?

Our Transformation Action Plan is an important and strategic deliverable for the firm, and we embarked on several initiatives to drive this forward. Our transformation vision is “To be recognised as a South African law firm leading the charge for inclusion and diversity, in line with the spirit of the Constitution, in a way that enriches the lives and development of all our staff and clients. Some of our initiatives include:

  • A Diversity and Inclusivity Programme to assist us in creating an inclusive environment where everyone feels at home.
  • A bespoke Unconscious Bias Training Programme.
  • Creating accountability for transformation at leadership level by including and strengthening transformation targets/measures in the performance and remuneration guidelines/processes.
  • Appointing a Head of Transformation.
  • Increasing the focus of procurement to drive transformation to empowered companies, prioritising the briefing of black counsel and applying preferential procurement policies.
  • Initiating a firm Gender Strategy aimed at increasing inclusivity for women at the firm.
  • Launching an internal campaign entitled Know my name, Know my story which included posters showcasing several of our people’s unique names and stories.

As at August 2019, we have a staff complement of 753 (of which 62% is female and 59% is black).

Highlight some recent contributions by the firm to the community and to the relevant profession your professionals are part of.

We continue to make a very significant contribution to South African society through our pro bono initiatives. Our focus is to aid on matters which serve to uphold the values set out in the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, particularly related to the enforcement, advancement and protection of rights contained in the Bill of Rights and the Rule of Law. Our clients include individuals, communities and not-for-profit organisations. Through establishing a dedicated team, we have been able to assist on many key and ground-breaking matters which have required extensive resources and made a truly significant impact to the lives of many South Africans. From 2015 – 2018, the firm devoted over 93 000 pro bono hours to make our country a more equal and diverse place.

As a firm, we have a long history of supporting entrepreneurship and innovation. We recognised that the future of South Africa requires an ecosystem of innovation and growth and we wanted to make a meaningful contribution towards this. In 2018, we selected 10 successful start-ups and scale-ups to join the Webber Wentzel Ignite Legal Incubation Programme. The #Ignite10 are highly innovative businesses that are disrupting their respective industries. They received tailored legal services, together with mentoring and training support, as well as targeted networking and profile-raising opportunities.

How does the firm ensure that professionalism and good customer service are upheld?

Our reputation is based on professionalism and good customer service. We have several training programmes in place to ensure that we have the skills to be able to deliver excellent and consistent client service. Our Key Client Programme provides a framework, guidelines and tools to help entrench and maintain deep client relationships by providing professional service that exceeds their expectations. It also gives clients the opportunity to provide feedback on the level of service and professionalism of the people that they work with in our firm. If we are not constantly on the lookout for opportunities to improve our customer service, then our relationships will stagnate.

What values do you hold dear and why?

I expect myself and everyone in the firm to have exceptional skills and commercial judgment and to be committed to the highest level of service to our clients. We also always need to maintain the highest ethical standards in conducting our business.

Transformation is imperative. The success of our ongoing transformation journey depends on each of us recommitting to, embracing and respecting each other and our diversity.

Do you think your organisation is a great company to work for? If so, please elaborate in detail what makes it different from others in its field?

Webber Wentzel is a great company to work for. We work on some of the most interesting and complex matters with colleagues who are among some of the most talented in the industry. We strive to nurture an environment where our differences are valued. In our experience, diverse teams find better, more creative and more robust solutions.

We are also deeply committed to serving communities and helping wherever we can. We have a dedicated pro bono team whose mandate is to provide free legal services to poor and/or vulnerable members of the public. We are committed to promoting access to justice for all South Africans, upholding the Constitution and protecting the rule of law.

When you not at work, what do you get up to including family life?

I am a husband and a father and relish every opportunity to spend some time with my family – whether at meals, taking part in the same activities or going to church. I love travelling, especially with the family, as it affords us the opportunity to explore and engage with our surroundings. I also destress by making ceramics – something that has taught me a great deal of patience.

Where can people follow you online?

I can be found on LinkedIn and the firm can be followed on twitter (@Webber Wentzel.

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