When the market hears the word `Miranda´, say competitors, they usually think of Africa. The law firm has steadily expanded into the continent over the past decade and a half, with associated offices in Angola, Cape Verde, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, São Tomé and Príncipe. And it has no intention of stopping anytime soon, says Rui Amendoeira, Miranda Correia Amendoeira & Associados’ Managing Partner.
For some, this has come at the expense of its domestic Portuguese practice, or expanding into those markets closer to home in Europe, such as Spain. But Amendoeira is quick to counter that they will not go to places where they don’t have a competitive advantage – it makes no sense. Far from engaging in fighting the price wars in its domestic market, Miranda chooses to do global work for clients in Africa charging global rates.
“To open in a market where everything is easy, such as Spain, would be much simpler, but there is a lot of competition and the market is not interested in a medium-sized firm like ours,” he explains. “We prefer opening somewhere that while it has many obstacles and difficulties to solve, once you open, the opportunities are endless, and the competition is limited.”
Where it all began
Amendoeira’s career has been, as he describes it: “The most uneventful, straight line career path you can think of!” He responded to two job adverts after studying law, had two interviews and got two offers. The only difference was that one had a cheque at the end of the month, the other didn’t. “It wasn’t wide spread practice to pay trainees back then, so it made my decision relatively easy,” he says with a smile.
At the time, it was a two-lawyer firm established in Lisbon in 1987 by Agostinho Pereira de Miranda, who was raised in Angola and lived there until his 20s. He then went to University in Portugal before joining Chevron in the US as In-House Counsel in the 1980s. “He was responsible for the company’s Angola projects for six years before returning to Portugal to set up his own practice,” says Amendoeira, “and Chevron was in fact the firm’s first client – the rest were also oil and gas companies and contractors in Angola”.
Rita Correia joined as a junior lawyer in 1988, Amendoeira in 1991 and the firm officially changed its name to Miranda Correia Amendoeira & Associados in 2000. The firm now counts 20 partners and 191 lawyers in its domestic practice.
Step by step
The pace of growth was relatively slow at the beginning, says Amendoeira, and things developed very naturally.
Angola was of course a natural first step, given Pereira de Miranda’s history, and they embarked on an association with Luanda-based Fátima Freitas Advogados in the early 90s, that is still going strong. Things took time, however, because Angola was in civil war, and it remained so until 2002.
They have taken their first steps into each new jurisdiction in exactly the same way – one at a time. “These things take a lot of time, resources and energy, and we are a small firm by international standards,” he explains. “We cannot take the approach of the big firms that open five-partner offices overnight.”
Initially, the decision to open is based on client demand. When they opened in Mozambique, in association with a local firm, it was following a request from an important oil client that needed oil licences. That was also the case for San Tomé where they opened to assist an oil operator.
“Decisions have to go past the seven-member Board and are unanimous, which is why it takes a while to agree,” says Amendoeira. It is a very old fashioned way of running a law firm, and not the most efficient by his own admission. “But I don’t mind waiting a few months if I have to convince each person that our next move is the right one. At the end of the day you need people to execute these decisions and if people don’t buy into the idea they can drag their feet.”
While the opportunities are endless, Africa is not without its challenges. Many jurisdictions are very closed to foreign law firms, and finding the right local partners, and the best local talent, is the most important thing by far, according to Amendoeira. “Sometimes we delay a decision for months or even years until we find the right person, as we can only operate in these jurisdictions through an association or partnership with a local firm or lawyer that is acceptable under local regulation.”
He points to the operational challenges involved, such as the day-to-day problems of running water, electricity and a tough working environment, and also access to local legislation. “One of the first things we do in any new jurisdiction is to make as complete a database of all the legislation as possible,” he explains. “In many places there are no electronic databases, and so you have to go to the local print office and get the Gazette for the past 30, 40 or even 50 years.”
Mozambique and beyond.
In 1997, they opened in Mozambique in association with a local firm, the first country outside of Angola, followed by San Tomé in 1998. The plan was to open in all the Portuguese-speaking countries, which was the first phase of expansion and the start of the network – Miranda Alliance. Each office or firm under its umbrella are independent practices, owned by the local professionals.
“The late 1990s and beginning of 2000 was then the period of real expansion,” says Amendoeira. A good milestone is when they moved to their current Lisbon office in 2001. “We had the option to choose to remain a niche highly profitable firm, essentially working on oil and gas projects, or grow to other countries and areas.” So they had an internal soul searching session just, brainstorming where the partners wanted to be in the next 10 years or so. “We chose expansion,” he adds, “and so moving was a part of that strategy, and a big step for us at that time.”
Once the Miranda Alliance had set up in the Portuguese-speaking countries, they began moving into other jurisdictions, such as Equatorial Guinea in 2005, one of their best decisions to date, says Amendoeira. “There’s a great deal of wealth there, and while it is one of the most challenging environments in the world to operate, it’s a very good place to do business.”
But while every move is calculated to the last detail, in Africa you cannot plan for everything. “We’ve expanded into places where civil war broke right after we arrived,” he says. “Guinea Bissau in 2005, for example. Since then there have been five coups, and every political and military incident you can imagine – but our associated office is still open!” It is the smallest in the Alliance, but they are lucky enough to work for three clients that he says are the largest companies in the country. “Which justifies the costs, and risks, of having an office there.”
As another example, while Miranda will soon be opening in the Republic of Cameroon, their first choice was to open in the Republic of Chad. “But the French decided to invade the region so our plans suddenly changed, and we were not quite comfortable sending our people into a war zone,” he jokes.
In a first move for a Lisbon law firm, Miranda´s most recent opening was an office in London last year. “Being in London is terribly expensive, and our outgoings remind us everyday just how much,” says Amendoeira. “But it’s a very good investment, it has been making a difference in certain areas where we have the ability to get to clients first because we have someone on the ground.”
As a curious by-product, Miranda just received a Business Internationalisation Award from the UK Department of Trade & Industry. The award is part of a programme implemented through local embassies to recognise and encourage local companies to set up in the UK.
“Honestly, I was shocked, we have a one person office!” says Amendoeira. “But for a small firm like ours to have opened an office, and for the UK to be attentive to this, says a lot about the openness of the British.”
Hot on their heels
At the beginning, Miranda was almost flying solo in Africa. And while Portuguese competitors used to associate Africa with sensitive issues such as corruption, now they all have offices in Angola and Mozambique. “They are all there, and following our lead, which is flattering and we knew sooner or later it would happen,” says Amendoeira. “If I were them I would be doing exactly the same thing, they would be stupid not to.”
But when it comes to Africa, there is a difference between saying you have an associated office, and ‘actually’ having one. “A local office has become a virtual concept for some people, and when you travel there you don’t necessarily find them on the ground,” says Amendoeira. “We have physical associated offices with physical people and you see their plate on the door. They are established independent local practices with local lawyers and staff. Most of them already had very significant practices before joining the Miranda Alliance. With some of our competitors that’s not exactly the case.”
Amendoeira identifies his competitors as falling into three groups: local lawyers or offices, the Portuguese and then the international firms. “Each group poses a different threat and you need to have a different strategy to deal with each.”
The locals and internationals are easiest to deal with, he says. With the international law firms there is only a certain type of work they want to do – the big transactions. “They talk about Africa but don’t necessarily leave London, for example, to go there. So we know what space they occupy and we continue to work with all the international firms on a daily basis as local counsel.”
It is with the Portuguese firms that Miranda has most competition, because they are all offering similar service: “The idea that you can be both international and local, have international standards but an ‘on the ground’ presence.”
The road ahead
As they move further into Africa, Miranda is due to move offices again in Lisbon at the start of next year. “The building is still under construction and while it gives us more space, more importantly it’s a better location.”
Miranda, many would say, is all about ‘location’. Whereas initially the common link to their expansion was the Portuguese language, now it is mostly based on being where the oil is. Once the oil-rich locations run out, however, some question whether the firm will have reached its glass ceiling.
But Amendoeira doesn’t dedicate much time thinking about the competition. “I’m only talking about it because you’re talking about it!” he concludes.