How Africa’s premier law firm is preparing its partners to take charge

5 minute read

How Bowmans is preparing to take charge

Developing a strong bench of leaders in a relevant way is an imperative given the complexity of the global landscape, and a priority for us.

Being a great lawyer in a top-tier corporate firm requires a lot more than technical excellence. For me, it’s about harnessing the skill, expertise and leadership required to collaborate cross functionally and across jurisdictions to best partner with clients to solve their most complex problems. It is also crucial if we are to lead, develop and inspire the next generation of lawyers. This is essential to continue the firm’s sustained performance and culture.

We know this from our internal observations and experiences. It is this focus on moving our lawyers from specialists to orchestrators that appealed to us when arranging for ten of our Partners and Business Service Heads to attend the Oxford Leading Professional Service Firms Programme.

Established in 1885, Bowmans is one of Africa’s premier corporate and commercial law firms. We help clients with a range of legal issues covering corporate, finance, competition, taxation, employment, technology and dispute resolution matters.

Investing in the firm’s future sustainability requires a multifaceted approach, and one area of focus is to develop people who can deliver world-class legal services and engage in strategy and set direction.

Ongoing development as a strategic investment

There are several priorities for our leadership development:

  1. To develop specialists that have the required leadership behaviour and skills required to navigate complexity, and ongoing change required of law firms today and in the future.
  2. To  continue to emphasise and harness the firm’s  focus on strategic business development capabilities.
  3. To support retention. A specific challenge for us is lawyers leaving for more lucrative roles overseas, particularly in the UK and US. Since COVID, retention has become even more important.
  4. To support its diversity and inclusion initiatives to ensure the development and promotion of the right talent, particularly women of colour.
  5. To develop non-fee earning staff with leadership potential, for instance, a head of business development.

Pivoting in Covid times

We had initially planned a traditional 18-month leadership development programme. But when the Covid pandemic hit, it needed something that it could implement quickly and virtually at a world-class skill level. 

Having already worked with Oxford on another leadership development project, we realised that the Oxford programme could work well. 

We chose ten partners to attend the eight-week programme in October 2021.

What appealed to us about the Leading Professional Service Firm Programme was the strong focus on a law firm, which is nuanced and has its own complexities and challenges. And Oxford has worked with other professional services firms, so its research is grounded in the professional services context and methodology.

We also liked the virtual component of it from a methodology and design perspective. It was a very slick system, easy to navigate and seamless in its architecture.

We also found the concept of ‘the swirl’ attractive. This is Oxford’s framework which outlines the factors that drive continuous self-development and the components of a winning performance through a continuous cycle of orchestrating expertise, experience and relationships.

'It identifies four key sources of competitive advantage: delivering excellent client centric service; broadening reputational footprint; building relationships; and developing expertise, each in a carefully thought out and unique way. The aim is to move from being a technical expert to becoming an orchestrator and, like the conductor of an orchestra, to get each of the different parts to combine in a way that creates a one-of-a-kind, exquisite product.'

Lusanda Raphulu, Head of Dispute Resolution

Sink or swim: self-directed learning

A major benefit is that the partners quickly became accustomed to self-directed learning. The pandemic really brought to the fore, the concept of technology as a learning enabler, and it was exciting to see the participants so easily adopt the technology.

The participants derived enormous benefit from the programme, meeting and working with others across countries and industries. They found the fact that many law firms and professional services companies from across the globe were struggling with the same challenges enlightening and informative. As with all law firms, there was also a strong competitive side which motivated the group to get through it together. Every single participant completed it, which is noteworthy given the multiple demands on partner time.

There was a huge sense of accomplishment. The participants found eight to ten hours a week to complete the programme - and these people are generally extremely busy. This is because they enjoyed it, but they were getting a lot out of it as well.

'The course was a fantastic opportunity to learn from top Oxford Professors and to collaborate with leaders globally on enhancing client experience, differentiating our firm for competitive advantage, remaining relevant with transformational change and working with expert teams of high performing experts to enhance the role of our firm and people as trusted advisors to clients. The format of the course allows one, the opportunity to reflect deeply on the content as it pertains to enhancing our service offering to our own unique clients in a collaborative and safe space. On a personal note, thank you for this fantastic opportunity. I really appreciate the exposure and investment and am already seeing numerous opportunities to leverage the learnings.'

Cathy Truter, Head of Knowledge

Greater awareness of strategy

Over the past 18 months, with our focus on collaboration and leadership development, we have seen a greater awareness of strategy, business development and the cross functional bundling of expertise with the firm.

We now see much more focus on business development and client relationships from a strategic perspective - mining, planning and pipelining - in a more consistent way. There is a lot more concern for the future world of law, more innovative thinking and how people engage and collaborate across boundaries is evolving too.

The programme has complimented and enhanced the skill set required to work with different things at a very high level to move their practices forward. It means working through people and driving results. We are convinced that the programme and the people who attended it are part of that change.

The programme fills a gap in the market and it exceeded our expectations as a short-term solution for a much bigger kind of intervention. We hope to do more with Oxford.