South Africa: Boutique vs Full Service

Last Updated: 7 August 2012
Article by Chris Bull

Most Read Contributor in South Africa, September 2018

A review of the development of IP firms in Africa

John Grisham's novel "The Litigators" begins with the words "The law firm of Finley & Figg referred to itself as a "boutique firm".  This misnomer was inserted as often as possible into routine conversations, and it even appeared in print in some of the various schemes hatched by the partners to solicit business.  When used properly, it implied that Finley & Figg were something above your average 2-bit operation.  Boutique, as in small, gifted and expert in one specialised area." This is a slightly uncharitable way of describing a boutique firm, particularly when one considers that this is often the model chosen for the delivery of legal services in areas such as intellectual property.

In Africa, as is the case in many regions, there is a debate taking place as to whether a boutique firm or a full service law firm is the preferred model for delivery of high end intellectual property services. It is too early to tell which strategy will ultimately be the more successful. What is beyond a shadow of doubt though is that the next 10 years are a critical phase in the development of intellectual property practices across Africa.

Africa's profile in intellectual property continues to grow as many predict that over the next decade Africa is likely to emerge as the fastest growing economic region in the world.  This trend became evident during the 10 years ending in 2010 when six of the world's ten fastest growing economies where in sub-Saharan Africa.

Patent and trade mark filings have mirrored this growth in economic activity, with double-digit growth in patent and trade mark filings in recent years.  This growth continues to be lead by companies based in the United States and Europe, with China emerging rapidly as a significant player in economic growth in Africa.  As might be expected, the most active sectors are pharmaceuticals, information technology, telecommunications and mining and retail.

During the 20th century a number of specialist intellectual property firms emerged in Africa, with the largest of these firms being in South Africa.  Some of these firms grew to be mid-sized firms by global standards, with more than 20 partners.  Outside of South Africa, small boutique firms and general law firms were handing intellectual property work in countries spread across Africa.  With the emergence of Africa as a significant economic region, patent and trade mark law firms are re-organising the way in which they develop their practises to meet the demands of this growth.  In developing strategies for the growth of their firms they are looking to the models that have been followed successfully in other regions.

Intellectual property service providers in Africa can be divided broadly into three categories:

  1. regional firms providing IP services in a particular country or a limited group of countries;
  2. IP firms based in Europe or elsewhere providing services into Africa; and
  3. large law firms based in Africa with the stated strategy of providing IP services across the African continent.

Regional firms

There are many regional firms in Africa with a small group of IP professionals providing services to clients. Many of these regional African firms provide sound advice and services to clients. In some instances though these firms lack the breadth of experience or the organizational capacity to handle work for larger corporates who are seeking advice beyond patent and trade mark filing activities.

Regional and local firms can often have surprisingly high fee rates, which can stem from a lack of capital and volumes of work necessary to invest in world-class information technology and office systems. In the absence of these, cost savings through economies of scale can't be passed on to clients.

One of the biggest challenges for these firms is not to be drawn by the allure of doing work in other parts of Africa, where they may not have the capability and experience to deliver work to clients. There are instances where clients have discovered after a number of years that their work has not been done, misreported or abandoned. A difficult position to recover from.

IP firms based in Europe (providing services into Africa)

The model that is followed by these firms is to build up a body of professionals in Europe or elsewhere and establish working relationships with lawyers or IP professionals in local African countries. This model emerged during the 1970's with Spoor & Fisher establishing its practice in Jersey in the Channel Islands. Since then others have followed a similar model.

The challenge with this approach is generally two-fold. Firstly, the additional layer of cost established between the client and the agent actually making the filing in a particular country and, secondly, the additional costs of running operations out of relatively high cost jurisdictions. Both of these costs have to be passed back to the client.

Under this model clients are also finding it challenging to get advice beyond conventional patent and trade mark filing and prosecution work as the firms have in many instances not invested in the establishment of local infrastructure, skills and talent in African countries. The model is very much one of running things by remote control.

Large law firms based in Africa

By "large law firms based in Africa" I am referring to firms having in excess of 250 professionals based in Africa and annual fee turnover in excess of US$ 100 million. At present there is only one firm that meets these criteria, namely ENS (Edward Nathan Sonnenbergs), but one has to also consider Adams & Adams, which is by any standards a large IP firm.

These firms are investing substantial amounts of capital and effort in expanding their services across Africa. Both firms had their origin in South Africa and are now investing in opening offices across Africa. For a few years Adams & Adams dabbled with the idea of running its (non-South African) Africa practice out of Mauritius. This approach was soon abandoned in favour of a more direct approach of opening offices in Africa, which seems to be serving them well.

ENS has emerged in recent years as the largest law firm in Africa with a full service IP practice. The firm has been conscious of drawing talent with international experience in patent and trade mark filing and prosecution, litigation and IP commercial advice. It is also investing substantial amounts of capital in the expansion of its operations across Africa.

Conclusion

The development of IP practices across Africa is taking place rapidly and faces challenges similar to the challenges that firms have been faced in other regions that have seen similar levels of economic growth. In Africa though the shortage of IP professionals with relevant experience is perhaps more acute than elsewhere. There is a trend towards the concentration of these professionals in a few firms.

The building of the necessary organizational capacity to provide world-class IP services across the African continent will be a challenge for many firms. It will require substantial amounts of capital, often funded by the partners in a firm, quite apart from visionary and dynamic leadership. The next few years will determine which firms are able to meet these challenges.

For those that chose to avoid the challenge of building firms with scale and reach across the African continent there will always be the option of playing the role of a boutique IP firm, focusing on a particular country or region within the continent.

Footnotes

1. The Economist Jan 6th 2011 "A hopeful continent: The Lion Kings; Africa is now one of the world's fastest-growing regions"

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Authors
Similar Articles
Relevancy Powered by MondaqAI
 
Some comments from our readers…
“The articles are extremely timely and highly applicable”
“I often find critical information not available elsewhere”
“As in-house counsel, Mondaq’s service is of great value”

Related Topics
 
Similar Articles
Relevancy Powered by MondaqAI
Related Articles
 
Up-coming Events Search
Tools
Print
Font Size:
Translation
Channels
Mondaq on Twitter
 
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
 
Email Address
Company Name
Password
Confirm Password
Position
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Accounting
 Anti-trust
 Commercial
 Compliance
 Consumer
 Criminal
 Employment
 Energy
 Environment
 Family
 Finance
 Government
 Healthcare
 Immigration
 Insolvency
 Insurance
 International
 IP
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Litigation
 Media & IT
 Privacy
 Real Estate
 Strategy
 Tax
 Technology
 Transport
 Wealth Mgt
Regions
Africa
Asia
Asia Pacific
Australasia
Canada
Caribbean
Europe
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
U.K.
United States
Worldwide Updates
Registration (you must scroll down to set your data preferences)

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including your content preferences, for three primary purposes (full details of Mondaq’s use of your personal data can be found in our Privacy and Cookies Notice):

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting to show content ("Content") relevant to your interests.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, news alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our content providers ("Contributors") who contribute Content for free for your use.

Mondaq hopes that our registered users will support us in maintaining our free to view business model by consenting to our use of your personal data as described below.

Mondaq has a "free to view" business model. Our services are paid for by Contributors in exchange for Mondaq providing them with access to information about who accesses their content. Once personal data is transferred to our Contributors they become a data controller of this personal data. They use it to measure the response that their articles are receiving, as a form of market research. They may also use it to provide Mondaq users with information about their products and services.

Details of each Contributor to which your personal data will be transferred is clearly stated within the Content that you access. For full details of how this Contributor will use your personal data, you should review the Contributor’s own Privacy Notice.

Please indicate your preference below:

Yes, I am happy to support Mondaq in maintaining its free to view business model by agreeing to allow Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors whose Content I access
No, I do not want Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors

Also please let us know whether you are happy to receive communications promoting products and services offered by Mondaq:

Yes, I am happy to received promotional communications from Mondaq
No, please do not send me promotional communications from Mondaq
Terms & Conditions

Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd (Mondaq). Mondaq grants you a non-exclusive, revocable licence to access the Website and associated services, such as the Mondaq News Alerts (Services), subject to and in consideration of your compliance with the following terms and conditions of use (Terms). Your use of the Website and/or Services constitutes your agreement to the Terms. Mondaq may terminate your use of the Website and Services if you are in breach of these Terms or if Mondaq decides to terminate the licence granted hereunder for any reason whatsoever.

Use of www.mondaq.com

To Use Mondaq.com you must be: eighteen (18) years old or over; legally capable of entering into binding contracts; and not in any way prohibited by the applicable law to enter into these Terms in the jurisdiction which you are currently located.

You may use the Website as an unregistered user, however, you are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the Content or to receive the Services.

You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these Terms or with the prior written consent of Mondaq. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information from the Content. Nor shall you extract information about users or Contributors in order to offer them any services or products.

In your use of the Website and/or Services you shall: comply with all applicable laws, regulations, directives and legislations which apply to your Use of the Website and/or Services in whatever country you are physically located including without limitation any and all consumer law, export control laws and regulations; provide to us true, correct and accurate information and promptly inform us in the event that any information that you have provided to us changes or becomes inaccurate; notify Mondaq immediately of any circumstances where you have reason to believe that any Intellectual Property Rights or any other rights of any third party may have been infringed; co-operate with reasonable security or other checks or requests for information made by Mondaq from time to time; and at all times be fully liable for the breach of any of these Terms by a third party using your login details to access the Website and/or Services

however, you shall not: do anything likely to impair, interfere with or damage or cause harm or distress to any persons, or the network; do anything that will infringe any Intellectual Property Rights or other rights of Mondaq or any third party; or use the Website, Services and/or Content otherwise than in accordance with these Terms; use any trade marks or service marks of Mondaq or the Contributors, or do anything which may be seen to take unfair advantage of the reputation and goodwill of Mondaq or the Contributors, or the Website, Services and/or Content.

Mondaq reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to take any action that it deems necessary and appropriate in the event it considers that there is a breach or threatened breach of the Terms.

Mondaq’s Rights and Obligations

Unless otherwise expressly set out to the contrary, nothing in these Terms shall serve to transfer from Mondaq to you, any Intellectual Property Rights owned by and/or licensed to Mondaq and all rights, title and interest in and to such Intellectual Property Rights will remain exclusively with Mondaq and/or its licensors.

Mondaq shall use its reasonable endeavours to make the Website and Services available to you at all times, but we cannot guarantee an uninterrupted and fault free service.

Mondaq reserves the right to make changes to the services and/or the Website or part thereof, from time to time, and we may add, remove, modify and/or vary any elements of features and functionalities of the Website or the services.

Mondaq also reserves the right from time to time to monitor your Use of the Website and/or services.

Disclaimer

The Content is general information only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice or seek to be the complete and comprehensive statement of the law, nor is it intended to address your specific requirements or provide advice on which reliance should be placed. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the Content for any purpose. All Content provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers hereby exclude and disclaim all representations, warranties or guarantees with regard to the Content, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. To the maximum extent permitted by law, Mondaq expressly excludes all representations, warranties, obligations, and liabilities arising out of or in connection with all Content. In no event shall Mondaq and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use of the Content or performance of Mondaq’s Services.

General

Mondaq may alter or amend these Terms by amending them on the Website. By continuing to Use the Services and/or the Website after such amendment, you will be deemed to have accepted any amendment to these Terms.

These Terms shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of England and Wales and you irrevocably submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales to settle any dispute which may arise out of or in connection with these Terms. If you live outside the United Kingdom, English law shall apply only to the extent that English law shall not deprive you of any legal protection accorded in accordance with the law of the place where you are habitually resident ("Local Law"). In the event English law deprives you of any legal protection which is accorded to you under Local Law, then these terms shall be governed by Local Law and any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with these Terms shall be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts where you are habitually resident.

You may print and keep a copy of these Terms, which form the entire agreement between you and Mondaq and supersede any other communications or advertising in respect of the Service and/or the Website.

No delay in exercising or non-exercise by you and/or Mondaq of any of its rights under or in connection with these Terms shall operate as a waiver or release of each of your or Mondaq’s right. Rather, any such waiver or release must be specifically granted in writing signed by the party granting it.

If any part of these Terms is held unenforceable, that part shall be enforced to the maximum extent permissible so as to give effect to the intent of the parties, and the Terms shall continue in full force and effect.

Mondaq shall not incur any liability to you on account of any loss or damage resulting from any delay or failure to perform all or any part of these Terms if such delay or failure is caused, in whole or in part, by events, occurrences, or causes beyond the control of Mondaq. Such events, occurrences or causes will include, without limitation, acts of God, strikes, lockouts, server and network failure, riots, acts of war, earthquakes, fire and explosions.

By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions