Webber Wentzel is today one of Africa’s leading law firms with a total staff of approximately 800, including over 450 lawyers and offices in Johannesburg and Cape Town.
The South African Professional Services Academy spoke to Senior Corporate Partner Safiyya Patel about her personal and entrepreneurial journey at the firm.
Tell us your brief history and your role TODAY, how was your training like?
I graduated from Wits University in 1995 and served my articles at Webber Wentzel between 1996 and 1997. I practiced as an attorney in two law firms, both impacting significantly on my training, growth and development before I re-joined Webber Wentzel as Partner in the Corporate Business Unit. Three and a half years ago, I was given an amazing opportunity to head up the Corporate Business Unit, the largest business unit by number of people and revenue in the firm. When I track my movement and changes throughout my career, I recognise that the changes were all important in crafting the individual I am today, with each of them leaving with me indelible imprints of some of life’s important lessons and challenges.
What does it mean to you that your colleagues have entrusted you with the position of Senior Corporate Partner?
I feel a great sense of privilege to have been entrusted with this very important role. In many respects my appointment was ground-breaking. I am a black female and at the time of my appointment, I was considered to be relatively young to assume a role of this magnitude. This appointment also meant that I could serve as a role model for younger black female lawyers and other professionals aspiring to rise through the ranks.
What would you like to have achieved by the end of your term as Senior Corporate Partner?
My purpose is driving a happy and collaborative working environment, which spear-heads diversity in the professional services sector; and driving innovation in our service delivery models – I’m committed to making a positive impact on each of these drivers.
How would you describe your management and leadership styles?
Authentic! My leadership and management is based on establishing and harvesting honest and open relationships with all professionals, business support staff in our business unit and the clients we service.
What makes you tick or keeps you awake at night with respect to your position?
Unhappy professionals keep me awake. I enjoy being part of building and maintaining a dynamic, collaborative law firm in an enabling environment that provides an equal opportunity for all our people to excel in their respective areas of work and core competency.
How do you take part in mentoring others?
I mentor professionals “on-the-job” but I also mentor other professionals who I do not necessarily work with in relation to their own careers and goals. I also provide informal mentoring to young people in the community and I’m often called in to provide informal mentorship to entrepreneurs establishing new businesses.
What would be the highs and what would be the lows of your working career?
Optimism is the mindset that drives who I am. However, change inevitably brings about some uncertainty and anxiety. As you move out of your comfort zone, you often ask yourself: “Have I made the right move?” In these instances, I have always chosen to lean forward, and I continually search for the positive strands to latch onto. This has worked for me, and whilst some of the steps along the way appeared to be large, I have been able to overcome them with some sense of gratification and accomplishment. As a rule, I forget the lows, and always focus on the highs.
What accolades have you and your organisation received recently?
In February 2017, Webber Wentzel was again recognised as one of the leading law firms in the market at the 16th Deal Makers Annual Gala Awards. Deal Makers is an important barometer of South Africa’s M&A and corporate finance market. For the second consecutive year, we clinched the title of Legal Advisor of the Year 2016 – ‘Mergers & Acquisitions by Deal Value’. We were also awarded Legal Advisor of the Year 2016 – ‘General Corporate Finance by Transaction Value’. These two awards are the most sought after titles amongst all the legal categories at the Deal Makers Awards, given that they demonstrate that clients trust us with their most important matters.
In May, Webber Wentzel also won the 2017 Private Equity Africa (PEA) Funds Legal Advisor of the Year Award at the 6th Annual PEA GP & Advisor Awards held in London. The Awards, held in partnership with the London Business School Private Equity Institute, celebrate the achievements of private equity houses and their advisors.
Global research and advisory firm, Universum, published its Most Attractive Employers Awards in SA for 2017. Webber Wentzel was ranked 1st in South Africa’s most attractive legal employers according to law students (46,981 students participated) and was ranked 3rd in South Africa’s most attractive legal employers according to professionals (after the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development and Google).
Webber Wentzel also featured prominently in the IFLR1000’s Financial and Corporate Guide 2017. The firm maintained its top tier status in all the researched practice areas, which include Banking, Capital Markets, Competition, Mergers & Acquisitions and Project Finance.
In May, Webber Wentzel in alliance with Linklaters were part of the winning deal team taking top honours at the IJ Global Awards in the Africa Renewables category for our role in the Kathu Solar Project.
How has the firm fared in terms of achieving its business growth objectives?
The firm has done incredibly well and continues to achieve year-on-year growth.
How does the organisation ensure that the firm maintains high level of ethics and integrity?
Ethics and integrity is a non-negotiable for our firm and is a minimum expectation of all our employees. It forms part of our firm’s key values and is enforced through a number of instruments and policies, all of which is managed and co-ordinated by a risk Committee.
Is transformation considered a key objective at the firm, and if so, how is it attended to?
Transformation is not only a key objective, but a key value of the firm. The firm is driving a transformation action plan through three key committees:
- The Transformation Committee;
- The Employment Equity and
- The firm’s Gender Strategy Working group.
Our transformation strategy is two-fold: To achieve measurable targets over specified periods over time and to influence the behavioural and established mindsets of all our employees, by unconscious bias training.
Highlight some recent contributions by the firm to the community and to the relevant professions your professionals are a part of.
The firm’s pro-bono practice provides free legal services to various organisations and communities and in FY16 our pro-bono practice clocked 18,213 hours. The work of the pro-bono practice is guided by the recognised need to narrow the divide between the advantaged and disadvantaged members of South African society and the obligation to play a role as a good citizen in promoting the transformative goals of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa. It represents Webber Wentzel‘s commitment to contributing to these processes through equal justice for all. One example: Webber Wentzel was successful in the Seshego Equality Court on major LGBTI rights matter where the Equality Court in Seshego has ruled in favour of Nare Mphela, a transgender woman who is biologically male by birth, but who identifies herself as female.
We are also involved in a number of CSI initiatives responding to violence against women. Members of our pro-bono team offer legal expertise and are involved with the working committee of the National Council for Gender Based Violence, which includes organisations such as People Opposing Women Abuse (POWA), Sonke Gender Justice, MenEngage and Brothers for Life. We remain committed to highlighting the crisis and will be looking at our CSI initiatives to ensure that we deliver maximum impact and support.
Webber Wentzel has also been working collaboratively with e-Deaf to employ and empower at least 15 black disabled learners annually. Our partners also started the Webber Wentzel Empowerment Trust (WWET), which serves to support 14 black law students with their law studies. The WWET delivers life skills training workshops to its scholarship beneficiaries every 12 to 16 weeks.
Webber Wentzel lawyers are also members of various law societies and organisations which enable us to keep abreast of law developments and contribute meaningfully to changes in legislation.
How does the firm ensure that professionalism and good customer service are upheld?
Part of our values is our commitment to excellence in all we do. We expect everyone who works here to have exceptional skills, commercial judgment and be committed to the highest level of service to our external and internal clients. We engage, train and coach our employees to ensure this happens.
Where can people follow you online?