eDiscovery in SA - Herbert Smith Freehills follow the sun!

Regular readers will know that I rarely dedicate an entire post to one firm or another but I am making an exception as what is happening here at HSF is radical and could have a major impact on SA, especially with regard to eDiscovery, which of course is my major interest. 

Going back in time, Herbert Smith was a Silver Circle law firm in the UK with a big reputation in litigation. In my time in the UK I did a great deal of work with them. Then in 2012 they merged with the top 6 Australian law firm Freehills and now have 27 offices and employ almost 5000 people worldwide.  They operate as one global team using best of breed and innovative systems looking after all legal services. If you look at their website you will see that they care about their markets and communities in which they operate and one of their aims and missions is to be the leading global law firm in relation to the attraction, retention and promotion of women. I will refer later to the latter point. 

My main interest stems from the establishment and development of their Alternative Legal Services (ALT) which provides solutions dealing with document intensive legal work of all kinds, not just dispute resolution. They combine technology with expertise and their teams consist of lawyers, technical people and legal and data analysts. Currently, they have, I believe, 11 hubs spread right across the world (the latest being New York) providing seamless around the clock solutions relating to a wide range of products and services for corporate clients. The beauty is that all of these hubs use the same technology; have the same training in processes and solutions; and recruit with the same ideals, so that they can and do truly work 24 hours a day matter by matter. Hence the inclusion in the title of my post about following the sun - a phrase which I have heard used often within ALT, and I can see why. Before I talk about SA, just one more thing referring to the comment about women. Now, I don’t like differentiating between sex or race or colour as I care only about ability but one has to accept that there are issues in certain countries or companies where “prejudices” seem to appear. Not so with HSF who are champions of gender diversity and especially not so with ALT where globally the Head is the highly impressive and well known Libby Jackson and the global team is dominated by women. I have met Libby as well as Lisa McLaughlin and Vanessa Kingsmill, spoken to Lyn Harris, and have also met Plaxedes Makura and discussed the use of Relativity with her, as she manages the Disputes team in Johannesburg as well as ILDP (more on that later too!). Modest as she is Plax has been recognised by FT & HERoes as Top 50 Female Future Leaders 2018 and what an accomplishment that is. When I add to meeting and talking with these people the fact that I have also met two highly impressive lawyers in Johannesburg, Cameron Dunstan-Smith and Jonathan Ripley-Evans it makes me comment that I have been involved in the legal world long enough, not to be easily impressed, but I sure am.

What has all this to do with SA? Well, HSF have a growing practice in Johannesburg and in particular established a hub of ALT there 2 years ago. I was delighted to do my eDiscovery presentation to their team recently and thoroughly enjoyed it. Furthermore they have recently appointed Jacquie Hodgson as Head of ALT Johannesburg to grow and develop ALT from its solid foundation. I know Jacquie well from previous dealings and therefore, I interviewed her recently, partly to congratulate her but also for more insight about ALT in anticipation of this blog post. Jacquie has excellent experience which clearly fit HSF’s requirements as Head of ALT. As a qualified lawyer, she has worked in private practice at Webber Wentzel in the corporate dept, but also worked with a start-up entrepreneurial company in which she established their legal framework and she has worked for local LPO company Exigent where she gained her Dispute Resolution experience. Talking to Jacquie I could feel the enthusiasm and excitement about her appointment. She told me that she spent time at ALT’s flagship presence in Belfast where they employ around 200 people and she was “blown away” by their professionalism. We talked about ALT being far more than simply lower cost document reviewers and more than just in-house versus outsource. Clearly it is way beyond all of that. It harnesses, globally, not just technology, but practices, procedures and processes to give clients the services they need, if necessary on a 24 hour basis. They cover all aspects of clients requirements not just dispute resolution but competition, investigations, corporate matters including contract management and due diligence and more. Like me, Jacquie is passionate about SA and she would not have joined HSF if she thought SA would not benefit from HSF’s presence. She is excited that Johannesburg is a pivotal part of the global strategy of ALT, feels that SA corporate clients are becoming more knowledgable, and that SA is poised for growth in the legal market. The other major innovation is the firm’s International Leadership Development Programme (ILDP) established 2 years ago in Johannesburg. This is an 18 month programme which offers up to 20 legal graduates the opportunity, pre Articles, to gain employment and work experience through a structured learning and development programme. The opportunity to work on international matters, develop client and commercial skills coupled with technical knowledge, is compelling and Jacquie informed me that the interviews and assessments in place to recruit the “cream of the crop” were excellent and rightly tough. ALT in Johannesburg currently has 25 people with plans to increase and grow the business.

Ok, enough about HSF per se, what does all this mean for eDiscovery in SA and why am I so interested? I like the fact that they use best of breed eDiscovery technology for a variety of types of matters and that there is consistency across the world. I like the fact that JHB has been selected as part of the collaborative programme. I like the fact that SA corporations, whether solely based here in SA or part of a global operation, will have the benefit of global work and skills at sensible rates. I like the fact that they appear to care about the communities in which they operate, as is evidenced by ILDP, which will certainly provide excellent career opportunities for a number of local graduates. I like the fact that it is different, pioneering and innovative. I like the fact that if ever I can get the Discovery Rules changed here, HSF will be in an exceptional position to handle discovery properly. 

Do I see challenges or will it be plain sailing for HSF in SA? It is never plain sailing and the biggest challenge I see is that this is South Africa. Every country and jurisdiction has its idiosyncrasies, none more so than SA. I have learned in my 5 years here to have a different mindset than previously in the UK and working with UK and US clients. To the surprise of many people who have known me for years I have learned to be much more patient and tolerant than before and HSF will need to do that. This is SA, where the inevitable never happens and the unexpected constantly occurs. What is a “no-brainer” elsewhere may not be accepted here or may take much more persuasion because of culture, legacy, mistrust, obstinacy, money, fear, or sheer lack of knowledge. So, my respectful advice to HSF would be to tread carefully with small steps, calmness and patience, and allow South Africa’s sun to warm the backs of South African as well as global clients.