Norton Rose Fulbright South Africa: firming up for the future

One of the steepest challenges facing any business, regardless of its sector or size, is keeping pace with rapid and wholesale change


Artificial intelligence (AI), big data, the Internet of Things (IoT), cryptocurrencies and smart contracts—these are just some of the terms now in our lexicon that didn’t exist a generation ago.

These concepts are no longer the preserve of ‘techies’. Understanding and capitalising on technologies such as these are requirements for success and sustainability.

“Every business is experiencing disruption and change at a faster pace than anyone anticipated. Technology is not something to be feared, but embraced. It is making us a smarter, more efficient firm and, in turn, helping our clients work more efficiently while driving down costs,” says the South African CEO of the global law firm, Norton Rose Fulbright, Sbu Gule.

Gule leads the team of technologically—and commercially-minded, risk-ready lawyers who understand business and the challenges companies face. He says client conversations are changing and legal expertise alone is no longer enough to secure and retain clients. They expect innovation and value-added services, in addition to the bread and butter legal consultancy work.

“Legal expertise is a given. We need to go beyond what has traditionally been expected of us. Our lawyers consult with a commercial understanding across industries, transcending the traditional legal services. A major client recently commented that we were the first law firm to go beyond ‘the law’ and engage on the potential of smart technology to transform their business. We have to add value and innovate,” Gule adds.

Gule believes embracing new technology and understanding its application in a client’s business is a key driver of this value-add proposition. Innovative firms use technology to their advantage and service clients by identifying growth areas and minimising potential risks.

The firm is at the forefront of modernising standard legal tasks such as contract review and due diligence. Its lawyers are entrepreneurial in finding innovative ways to service clients.

In a nod to its technological savvy, it has developed various AI products using in-house technology lawyers and developers. These are designed to simplify and speed up various compliance processes through automation, and are used at the firm as well as packaged for clients.
‘Contract Express’, for example, automates documents and provides online legal compliance training. A Chatbot named “Parker” helps companies in non-EU jurisdictions (including SA) to determine whether the newly signed European privacy legislation, GDPR, applies to their business.

With many companies holding private information, especially in the cloud, privacy and data protection laws cannot be ignored, says Gule. With the recent signing of the GDPR in Europe, and with POPI on the horizon locally, compliance to privacy laws must be taken seriously.

To navigate this complexity of legislation, “POPI Counsel” is an artificial intelligence tool that assists clients with Protection of Personal Information Act (POPI) compliance. Users key-in the relevant question and receive a legal opinion in real-time. While the Act has yet to come into effect, we are ahead of the curve in helping clients answer pertinent questions about data protection and privacy.

“This is especially useful for global clients who need to understand the legal and regulatory parameters before investing in South Africa,” Gule says.

There are other complexities around personal data. In addition to complying with legislation, companies dealing in data need a strategy on privacy and security risk management, cybersecurity and technology transactions, cautions Gule. Internal policies and procedures, including cyber incident response plans and stress tests, are crucial.

“Lawyers have traditionally been used reactively after being exposed to a particular risk. Our strategy is to proactively partner with clients to prevent risk. We identify potential risks with a full risk audit and help forward-plan to minimise any potential damage. We develop tailored risk management strategies and provide in-depth emergency response preparation and crisis management,” Gule explains.

This strategy comes at a time when businesses face progressively complex challenges and are exposed to a multitude of new risks. Increased cross-border collaboration between regulators, for example, means that incidents occurring in one jurisdiction can have consequences for the business in other regions.

“The speed that legal and regulatory risks can materialise and spread means companies need a thorough understanding of their risk exposure and robust governance, risk and compliance strategies to minimise risk,” says Gule.

The global Risk Advisory practice conducts full audits on specific legal and regulatory challenges facing a business using risk consultants, advisors and legal specialists with in-depth sector knowledge.

The South African Head of Risk Advisory, Marelise van der Westhuizen, has a sharp focus on regulatory law, investigations, compliance, money laundering and procurement. She advises the financial sector extensively on regulatory law including the Financial Intelligence Centre Act (FICA) and the Prevention and Combating of Corrupt Activities Act. The team advises the banking industry on anti-corruption and money laundering legislation as well as parastatals and development finance institutions on preferential procurement frameworks and disputes.

In addition to being attuned to client risk, Gule believes lawyers need to be technologically-minded and understand the opportunities such advancements—such as FinTech—can present to clients.

“There is increased interest and activity in the FinTech space as our clients recognise technology’s potential to transform or disrupt their business. Blockchain, distributed ledger and smart contracts technology, for example, and the use of AI and data analytics to price risk more effectively, are exciting developments we are helping them to capitalise on,” he says.

Opportunities such as these, however, bring an element of risk that must be understood in order to be circumvented. Hence, the importance of understanding the rapidly changing legal, regulatory and compliance landscape the business operates in.

The firm has established a FinTech practice whose lawyers are tech-savvy in addition to their regulatory and financial services knowledge. They advise leading financial institutions, including banks and insurers, on the legal and regulatory issues of FinTech, and are legal counsel to various financial services consortia. Much of their work involves assessing the opportunities and impact of technology and advising technology companies, start-ups and investors across the sector on best practice.

The firm partners with clients from diverse industries, many with global operations. Each faces a unique set of data protection, privacy and cybersecurity concerns, ranging from business strategy issues to transactions, and from cyber incidents to government investigations and litigation.

“We partner with our clients. We understand the intricacies of their business as well as the wider environment they operate in, including the risks and opportunities. We leverage our global network to provide advice that is holistic, informed and practical.

“We take a 360-degree view of their business in order to add real value,” Sbu Gule concludes. 

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