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Top law firms to merge in rare strategy

Saturday June 21 2014

PHOTO | FILE Senior Counsel George Oraro whose firm, Oraro and Company Advocates, is working on a deal to merge with Hamilton, Harrison and Mathews.

PHOTO | FILE Senior Counsel George Oraro whose firm, Oraro and Company Advocates, is working on a deal to merge with Hamilton, Harrison and Mathews. NATION

By Sunday Nation Reporter

Two of Kenya’s most prominent law firms are planning a merger that could shake up the multi-billion-shilling legal services sector.

Inquiries by the Sunday Nation indicate that the deal to bring together influential Hamilton Harrison & Mathews (HHM) and Oraro and Company Advocates has been sealed and is only awaiting the approval of relevant State regulators before an official announcement is made.

“It’s a rare move in local practice where splits or mergers of smaller firms are more common — not anything as exciting as this,” said a source familiar with the deal. 

Formed in 1902, HHM is arguably the oldest organisation of its kind in Kenya and has, over the years, been associated with the training and employment of some of the country’s best legal minds. Its impending merger with an equally distinguished firm formed 35 years ago by respected lawyer George Oraro may leave observers searching for a motive.

Justice (rtd) Richard Kwach, Mr Paul Ndung’u who chaired the ground-breaking land commission, Justice Paul Kihara Kariuki, Mr Peter Le Pelley of the Goldenberg Commission and Parliament’s Speaker in the 1960s, Humphrey Slade, once worked at HHM, while Chief Justice Willy Mutunga, Lee Muthoga and William Maema are among prominent lawyers trained at the firm.

Some of the top lawyers who have gone through Oraro and Company include former partner Ambrose Rachier, Cecil Miller and Justice (rtd) Aaron Ringera.

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When asked about the deal, Mr Oraro confirmed that talks were ongoing, but he did not give details. Long-serving HHM partner Richard Omwela also acknowledged the intention to merge.

“Once we get the greenlight, the new firm will be bigger and better, allowing more lawyers to specialise,” he said. 

But Mr Omwela, who has also been in the public eye as a rugby administrator, said it would be premature to discuss the matter before it gets regulatory approval.    

But the Sunday Nation has established that the new firm, which is likely to be known as HHM Oraro, with more than 50 lawyers in its stable, is positioning itself for local and regional mega deals in oil, infrastructure and various aspects of commercial transactions. Sources say the two firms have traditionally had little interest in criminal and civil cases, even though last year Mr Oraro represented Cord in the unsuccessful presidential petition at the Supreme Court.

COUNTER THE 'BIG BOYS'

“Despite Kenya’s current security and political problems, it remains a magnet for investments and a regional hub. There are many ongoing and proposed multi-billion-shilling investments, meaning clients in the private sector and the government require specialised legal services,” said the source.       

The merger is also said to be strategic at a time when big European and South African law firms are seeking to spread their operations to East Africa. The foreign lawyers with deep pockets are thought to be keen on locking out local firms from handling major transactions — particularly those involving  multinationals and international donors — or partnering with them only in some aspects.

“The thinking is that having a local law firm with the muscle and expertise to match the foreign ‘big boys’ is good for Kenya’s legal fraternity,” said the source.

Last December, the Nairobi Law Monthly, a magazine published by lawyer Ahmednasir Abdullahi, quoted statistics indicating that only 15 per cent of Africa’s corporate and commercial deals are handled by local firms, with 85 per cent going to international lawyers.

After the expected regulatory approval is given, senior lawyers at HHM Oraro will have to work hard to manage the challenge of a potential clash of egos that has been known to cause break-ups.