Cognia Law is a next generation legal service provider to corporations and law firms. The company is headquartered in the United Kingdom and maintain a blended shoring network, operating offshore legal support teams in South Africa and the EU. The South African operation is its largest offshore hub, with their largest operation based in Cape Town.
Invest Cape Town caught up with Janet Taylor-Hall, the CEO and Founder of Cognia Law at their offices in Cape Town, from where they have been running a successful operation for more than 6 years.
Many people may misunderstand the kind of work that your company do. Is Cognia Law a law firm?
Cognia Law is not a law firm, rather it is a law company. The distinction is that the company does not provide legal advice or legal opinion. The company supports law firms, and supports the in-house legal function of corporations and banks.
Why did you select South Africa as the offshore location of Cognia Law?
We specifically selected South Africa as the offshore location of the company because South Africa sits in quite a unique position compared to other offshore destinations.
The offshoring world, and particularly the legal outsourcing world, tend to either have operations in low-cost onshore areas, such as Birmingham, Leeds, etc. in the UK and the Midwest region in the US, or you get what is called near-shore operations such as Northern Ireland, Eastern Europe, etc. for the UK, with countries like Mexico or the South American region as the US equivalent. And then you have off-shore locations like the Philippines, India and South Africa which technically falls into that bracket.
The unique thing about South Africa is that the quality of service that you can provide from here is similar to what you can provide from a near-shore or onshore location, whereas if you go to India or the Philippines – while there is nothing wrong with the work that is being done there – is not as sophisticated an offshore location as South Africa.
So you get great value and significant benefits outsourcing to South Africa. We find that we can do more complex types of work from South Africa than we’d be able to do from the other locations.
Once again, the reason for that has nothing to do with intellect or work ethic. People from locations such as the Philippines or India are perfectly capable intellectually; it is just that the cultural alignment and communication skills and ability to work off script make South Africa unique as an offshore location and uniquely able to perform certain types of work that is high in the judgement call and communications spectrum. Our teams do a lot of contract negotiation, which is either done verbally over the phone or it is done via email, so there is a lot of communication that goes on.
Was there a specific reason for choosing Cape Town as the preferred location in South Africa for Cognia Law’s offshore operations?
Cape Town has a very strong pool of legal resource. It is also a lot more competitive than some of the other cities like Johannesburg, because you can source really good lawyers in Cape Town who want to live and work here and who find the international dimension of the type of work they do with us very attractive. An added benefit is that all our clients love visiting us in Cape Town! As a destination, Cape Town is not hard to sell.
The quality and value you get from the individuals that you find working in Cape Town is great. In addition to that, it’s a great location for finding and attracting foreign nationals. For example, every now-and-again we will have an individual come in to lead a team for a period of time, or to up-skill our teams here in South Africa in a certain legal work type. In another example we may have to have a team headed up by a UK qualified real estate lawyer. It’s a great location to attract people to.
What has your experience been like operating in Cape Town?
We are very actively ‘pro’ the experience that we’ve had operating here in Cape Town. It’s been a great success story for us. There is no shortage of the skills and the talent that we need. In certain areas where the expertise doesn’t necessary reside here, such as for some of our banking and finance teams, we’ve invested in building up those particular skill sets with very competent individuals that we’ve hired, or in some cases individuals who have returned from the UK or moved here from Johannesburg. But Cape Town has proven to be an extremely good location.
Can you tell us more about the quality of the talent pool in Cape Town?
Our experience has been very positive in terms of access to talent. We hire from the graduate level all the way up to the more experienced lawyers and we find good quality individuals and good quality lawyers across the spectrum. The graduates coming out of all three of the universities in the region – Stellenbosch, UCT and UWC – are excellent.
We tend to have to do training in the areas of management skills, project management skills and communication style. For example, South African lawyers are very formal in their communication style, whereas internationally, lawyers have moved to a much more business-like language. But these are more soft-skills which can be trained, and the core competencies of the individuals are really excellent. We’ve had a number of occasions where our teams have been complimented as being as good as London based teams.
The challenge around team leadership and management skills however, is a challenge that everyone in our sector has to a certain degree. Lawyers tend to be trained less to manage people and more to practice law, so that’s not a uniquely South African challenge.
I would put skills and access to the skills pool in the top bracket for the South African BPO sector, especially in our industry vertical.
What other benefits are there in your industry for choosing South Africa as an offshore destination?
There are a number of benefits:
- It is cost-effective. In South Africa you have a highly-skilled workforce at rates typically 30-50% less than other primary source markets such as the UK, Europe and US.
- Skilled talent as mentioned. South Africa has world-renowned schools and universities and supplemented by Cognia Law’s training and development programs, the sky is the limit.
- Then there is also the cultural proximity. Our team members can take a nuanced approach to build relationships with UK / European clients, as they understand the culture and share a common law system.
- Some of our team members have worked in or emigrated from the UK and Europe, so they have international experience.
- Another factor is time and language parity. The business language here is English and South Africa is 1 to 2 hours ahead, which allows team members to work a UK day.
- Of course, South Africa also has an excellent outsourcing reputation for being a reliable and leading outsourcing destination for alternative legal services, and is preferred by UK clients.
Have you had positive dealings with the City of Cape Town and have they been supportive during your 6 years of operating from Cape Town?
We’ve had a lot of interaction with BPESA (Business Process Enabling South Africa); most of the interaction we’ve had with the City of Cape Town and the Western Cape Government has been through the BPESA network. They have supported us and we have supported them very actively for the last 6 years.
We did encounter some difficulties when moving to our current premises in that we needed sign-off on the building regulations and it took quite a long time getting the final paperwork through. However, when we asked for assistance to speed things up, the City came back to us literally within 24 hours, got involved twice and followed up well, so it was an absolute pleasure to work with them. They really did a great job.
If you’d ask me to do it all over again and the question is where to set up operations, my answer would still be Cape Town.
What are your growth plans for the near future?
We intend to grow our operations here in Cape Town. We can currently seat 150 and in time we are looking to double that, if not more. We do have a small team – satellite office – in Johannesburg. In time we may expand operations into Johannesburg, but there is plenty of expansion room in Cape Town in terms of access to skills as well as access to the type of people that we need.
How has Brexit, the US-China trade wars and the state of the South African economy in recent times affected you as a business?
When the economy is tough globally, that’s where South Africa can start to shine as an offshore location, because companies are looking for ways of doing the same work they need to do, if not more work, with less.
The whole legal sector globally very much faces the ‘more-for-less’ challenge and are always looking for alternative solutions. Let’s look for example at two of the contracts that we have recently secured, where two international law firms have signed frame-work agreements with us. One of the firms has an operation in Birmingham and the other has an operation in Glasgow. Essentially, what they’ve concluded was that they needed access to more high quality talent and have therefore contracted with us to provide teams of lawyers here in Cape Town to augment their lower cost offering.
When the economy is tough, the outsourcing sector basically booms, especially if you provide services from high quality offshore locations.
South Africa is not a cheap offshore location, but it’s a good value offshore location, so the quality of what you pay for is worth what you get.
What does the 4th industrial revolution, and entry of robotics & automation, potentially mean for your business? Does it threaten services or future employment? In what ways are you potentially future proofing your business?
Since founding we have actively embraced the benefits that robotics and automation bring to streamlining and increasing the efficiency of our work processing. We also currently have teams that are conducting legal reviews of national and international court judgements to populate AI-assisted research content platforms and are training off AI-powered contract review platforms.
So I guess you could say that we have built in the future proofing!
The 4th industrial revolution presents opportunities to an offshore location like South Africa. The best solution always lies in a combination of the human and the machine and our ability to source teams with high levels of EQ that provide these more sophisticated services less suited to robotics and automation in South Africa further confirms its appeal as a location.
For more information about Cognia Law, please visit www.cognialaw.com or download an introduction to Cognia Law here (PDF).
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