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From Paris to Africa: the French capital is houses base a small club of experienced lawyers who do deals in the most complicated emerging market of all, providing legal services in Africa

Crushed frogs. That's what a witch doctor in Zaire slathered on Jean-Claude Petilon's legs a few hours before he played his first game with a local basketball team. "The frog lotion would make us jump higher," Petilon recalls.

Today, a photograph of the team hangs on the wall of Petilon's Paris office, which is off a courtyard near the Opera Garnier. Petilon, a French national, is the only white man in the picture. When it was taken, in 1974, he was a young lawyer who had been dispatched to Kinshasa, the capital of Zaire--now the Democratic Republic of Congo--to open an office for what was then Duncan Allen & Mitchell. The U.S. firm wanted to set up an all-purpose office to represent American clients investing in Zaire. Playing basketball was a way to build ties to the community and to understand the culture. "It was essential to be seen as not being there to just make money," Petilon says. "For a foreign lawyer to compete with local firms, you had to be involved in local life."

Africa has been at the center of Petilon's practice ever since, even after he returned to France in 1979. Now a partner at Fasken Martineau DuMoulin, Petilon is one of a small community of mostly Paris-based lawyers who have built Africa-focused practices over the past three decades, after the continent first began attracting foreign investment in the 1970s and 1980s. The Africa bar includes lawyers from U.K. firms Clifford Chance, Herbert Smith, Linklaters, Denton Wilde Sapte, and Allen & Overy; U.S. firm White & Case; and French firm Gide Loyrette Nouel, which has established official offices in Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. While some firms are deploying more London-, New York-, or Middle East-based lawyers for Africa work, Paris still makes a natural base because of longtime Francophone and civil law connections; it's in the same time zone as much of the continent; and it's also relatively close to Africa, making business travel easier. (A Paris-Tunis flight is just two hours, for instance.) While political instability has made doing work in Africa precarious at times--in some countries, lawyers say, it's smart to have security guards meet their flights--veterans say they've fallen in love with Africa's vibrant cultures and hospitable people.

Over time, the work has changed. From mostly sovereign debt offerings, restructurings, and natural resources deals for foreign investor and foreign lender clients, it now includes some corporate deals big enough to make a more-than-respectable showing in the league tables, such as Bharti Airtel Limited's $10.7 billion acquisition of telecom company Zain's African assets this year. With the continents increasing need for electricity and infrastructure and growing interest from Indian and Chinese investors, the dealmaking possibilities are only getting stronger. The International Monetary Fund predicts GDP growth in sub-Saharan African will be a half percentage point above the 4.2 percent global average. Projections for the region's 2011 growth currently stand at 5.75 percent, according to the IMF.

"The potential in Africa is enormous," says Stephane Brabant, head of Herbert Smith's African practice and mining group. He adds: "Africa will be the continent of the twenty-first century. There's no doubt in my mind."

MANY LAWYERS IN THE AFRICA CLUB GOT THEIR introduction to the developing continent by working on sovereign debt restructurings. White & Case, for instance, secured a foothold in Africa in the 1990s when it represented Algeria in restructuring its external debt, says Paule Biensan, head of the energy, infrastructure, project finance, and privatization group in White & Case's Paris office. The country was then in the midst of a civil war. "There were very few firms that would do business with Algeria," Biensan says, "and we were one of them."

 

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