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Fasken Martineau makes big move into Africa

Bay Street’s Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP is merging with a South African law firm in a move it says will cement its rank as the Canadian-based law firm with the most lawyers outside the country’s borders.

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Bay Street's Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP is merging with a South African law firm in a move it says will cement its rank as the Canadian-based law firm with the most lawyers outside the country's borders.

The merger will see the 76 lawyers at Johannesburg-based Bell Dewar Inc., a firm with more than a century of history and a legacy of opposition to apartheid, become part of Fasken Martineau and operate under the Canadian firm's name.

It's a move that comes as South Africa suffers a wave of strikes – punctuated by the shocking shooting of 34 striking miners by police in August – and concerns over faltering economic growth. Fasken Martineau says its expansion there is primarily driven by its mining industry clients as they increasingly invest not just in South Africa but across the continent. The firm has had a small office of its own in Johannesburg, with five lawyers, since 2003.

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The merger, scheduled to take effect in February 2013, comes after years of speculation in the Canadian legal world about potential mergers with large U.S. or British firms. It means Fasken Martineau, which has offices across Canada, will now have 167 lawyers abroad, many more than any other law firm headquartered in Canada.

That number includes more than 70 in London, where Fasken Martineau merged with British firm Stringer Saul LLP in 2007. It also has an office in Paris.

"There's no doubt if you look at the Canadian-based firms, we are the most international," David Corbett, Fasken Martineau's managing partner, said. "Frankly with the Canadian market, you have to look outwards. So we've been looking outward for a number of years."

Many Canadian law firms have small offices in key markets overseas. Several have recently expanded their presence in far-off places, including in the Middle East and China. But rarely does a Canadian law firm expand by merging with a major firm in another market.

And certainly none has done so before in Africa, where no Canadian-headquartered law firm even has a physical presence - except Fasken Martineau, which will now have 773 lawyers in total. In 2010, however, London-based legal giant Norton Rose announced a merger with a South African firm as it merged with Montreal's Ogilvy Renault, making it a competitor there with Canadian connections.

Despite appearing to set Fasken Martineau on a different path as an independent, Canadian-based global firm, Mr. Corbett said he would not rule out a future merger with a larger international player.

"Our market is subject to all sorts of rumours, and I am sure it will continue to evolve and to change. We're always looking at opportunities, but our focus is to develop a Canadian-based firm," he said. "That may well result in us having appeal to a number of other players in the overall marketplace."

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Bell Dewar focuses on many of the same areas as Fasken Martineau: Mining, energy, infrastructure and financing all of the above. Both are increasingly focusing on international arbitration, since mining in African countries often involves disputes with governments that are referred to international tribunals.

Blaize Vance, the managing director of Bell Dewar, said the firm was looking to better serve its expanding South African mining clients by linking up with an international partner with a presence in Toronto and London, where the bulk of the world's mining companies seek financing.

"If you had asked us maybe a few years back whether a Canadian firm was who we were going to tie up with, we might have said no," he said in a phone interview from Johannesburg. "But when we did our research it became very, very clear that Faskens was the firm for us."

Bell Dewar lawyers were known in the apartheid era for assisting opposition newspapers facing government restrictions on press freedom.

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About the Author
Toronto City Hall Reporter

Jeff Gray is The Globe and Mail’s Toronto City Hall reporter. He has worked at The Globe since 1998. From 2010 to 2016, he was the law reporter in Report on Business, covering Bay Street law firms and white-collar crime. He won an honourable mention at the National Magazine Awards for investigative journalism in 2010. More

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