Brendah Mpanga is the founding partner of BNM Advocates in Kampala, Uganda, which is also one of the ILN member firms. In this episode, Brendah and Lindsay delve into the economic impacts of multiple pandemics, the diligence required for business development, and Brendah’s passion project.
You can listen to the podcast here, or we’ve provided a transcript of the highlights below.
Lindsay: Hello and welcome to the Law Firm Intelligence Podcast. I’m your host, Lindsay Griffiths, executive director with the International Lawyers Network. Our guest this week is one of our returning guests, Brendah Mpanga from BNM Advocates in Kampala, Uganda. Brendah, welcome back. We’re so happy to have you back with us, and thanks for joining us again. For those of our listeners who haven’t had the pleasure of listening to your last podcast, why don’t you tell them a little bit about yourself and your practice?
Brendah: Thank you, Lindsay. Thank you very much for having me. Good afternoon, good evening, good morning, wherever you are based. I’m very happy to be here. It’s afternoon in Kampala, bright and sunny. We thank God for that. Good afternoon everyone. About me, my name is Brendah Mpanga like Lindsay have said. I am the founder and managing partner of BNM Advocates. Female led and largely female law practice based in the heart of Kampala. We serve corporate clients both within Uganda, Africa and the rest of the world. We are happy to be here. We’ve been in the Ugandan market for seven years now.
Lindsay: That’s right. You just celebrated an anniversary on the 1st of March, right?
Brendah: Yes. We are happy to have been in the market for that period of time. As perhaps you could know that very many businesses that start up, especially in Africa, don’t live beyond their third year. So, we are happy that we are not part of that statistic and happy to be moving forward, growing and hoping for big and better things.
Lindsay: Congratulations, that’s exciting.
Brendah: Thank you very much.
Lindsay: So, given that, what would you say is your biggest challenge at the moment, and how are you working to overcome that?
Brendah: Yes, one of the biggest challenges and I believe it’s a challenge that every lawyer in practice faces is business development, growing the client base. That is something that no one tells you about at law school. And then you start up this business and it is the largest part of the work that you are supposed to do. There’s no science to eat. There’s no book that will teach you how to do it, but you need to set apart time to do that. So that is one of our biggest challenges. And I think being where we are currently in Uganda, the economy is not helping. Last year we had an Ebola outbreak and inflation, I think in Q1, Q2, and part of Q3. So, all those things lumped up together do not help the fact that you’re trying to look for this client, to grow your client portfolio. So that’s one of the biggest challenges that we are currently facing.
Lindsay: Yes, absolutely. That is a challenge. So how are you facing that?
Brendah: Yes, again like I’ve said, there’s no science to business development. You just need to be deliberate about it. And what I have done as managing partner is to structure my time, my week. I must make sure that 50% of that time is set apart for business development. I have also encouraged the team. We’ve produced a reward and recognition policy where if you engage in business development and there are fruits therein, you will be rewarded and recognized for that. I think that has helped a lot, internally, we are doing that. Then externally of course, we are happy to be part of the ILN family. That move first of all has increased our credibility.
Our brand has improved visibility. The fact that we are part of a family of lawyers spread all over the globe, where we can be able to tap into a legal skill that we may not have in-house. This is very useful in terms of being able to have the potential and ability to engage even with clients with whom we don’t have the particular skill in-house. We believe that we are able to tap into the ILN family. So, we are kind of sort of a global law firm right now as you see it. And we are happy for that because right now when we are engaging with our clients, we also talk about ILN and the fact that if there’s anything that they have that we might not have in-house, we should be able to provide the service. And I think with that we will be able to see some growth and expansion in terms of our client base.
Lindsay: That’s great. So, you’ve already talked about the current state of the market in Uganda. Talk to me a little bit about what that has meant for your clients.
Brendah: Lindsay, as you might know, we had… Of course, COVID was not yesterday, but the impact of COVID is still very alive in everybody’s mind and business. And when we had that outbreak last year of Ebola and then inflation, which I believe is something that trickled around Africa and the rest of the world, those negative attributes kind of shocked the economy. And what that means is that people withhold, they’re not ready to spend. They would rather hold onto the finances that they have. And maybe postponed any activity that they may have in terms of legal and other services that they may require. And because of that, you’ll find that the economy becomes slower, business partnerships becomes slower, everything becomes slower because of that. But currently, I must say that coming out of a very bad inflation, currently the inflation is about 9.4%. It was about 10.3% last year in October.
When I looked at the stats, I think it’s about 9.4%, which shows that there’s a slight improvement. Currently, what that means is that there’s beginning to get a sense of business beginning to pick up. It’s just the beginning of the year as well. We are hopeful that the outlook will be different. We are entering into Q2, and also from a government perspective there’s a lot of wanting to finish all the projects that were planned within the fiscal year, preceding the reading of the budget which would be in 30th of June this year. So, because of that you’ll find that all the projects that had been planned for the year, those that are involved are trying to finish them within this period of time. And the ripple effect of that means that there could be some business coming through for the lawyers and other service providers.
Lindsay: That’s great. That’ll really help. Absolutely.
Brendah: I hope so too.
Lindsay: Yes, certainly. So, switching gears a little bit, what would you say is the biggest area that’s related to your practice or industry that you’re curious about and why?
Brendah: I think largely I have been curious about corporate governance. I mentioned when I started speaking that very many businesses do not live beyond the third year of their existence. I don’t know how it is there. But here that’s a very, very huge problem. Very many SMEs and startups collapse after the third… They don’t go beyond the fifth year. And part of the reason is because of lack of proper governance frameworks in terms of good governance, the leadership, separation of roles, reporting lines, decision making. The very many family businesses, for example, make decisions over the dining table. I know, yes, there have been businesses that have been successful who make decisions at the dining table.
But again, because of the lack of separation of family and business, very many businesses have been collapsing. What we are now doing at the firm is when we get a client, even if they’ve in instructed us on something different, we try and make sure that we watch the corporate governance side of things to make sure that they have the right governance frameworks in place. Is the board the right one? Do they have the right skills and expertise? Do they make the decisions that they’re supposed to make? How often do they make these decisions? Are they different from management? So we give that as a piece to the businesses that we work for as a value add service, to ensure that the business side of things is enabled in a better governed way to make sure that everything moves smoothly.
But as we were going on that journey recently, we encountered some cases with a client, a local NGO, that is trying to revoke guardianship orders for children that were illegally adopted out of Uganda. And when we started doing the applications, taking them to court and seeking revocation of those illegal orders, we decided to take a step back and look at the underlying reasons. And what is common in all these cases is that there’s a family at the end of it, that the mother is illiterate. Perhaps they’re separated with the father and a single mother whose children are taken away. And we want to conduct research in that area, want to understand what kind of protection is given to such vulnerable families.
We have an Illiterate Protections Act, which gives certain criteria that one is supposed to follow in the case of when such a person goes to court. You must make sure that they understand, whatever they’re signing should be read to them in a language they understand. And we’re beginning to question some of those things. But also, the wider societal attitudes, because I remember there’s one application we went to court and the judge was saying, “But these kids are studying in the Netherlands. The mother lives in the village here. Why don’t you leave them to study in the Netherlands? They’re happier there.” And I was shocked by that phrase because my understanding is that the parent has a constitutional right for them to exercise their rights as a parent to this child. And therefore, it’s a human right for them to be able to live with their child.
So, I was shocked to hear that the judge was making such a comment, and for me, he was already biased and wouldn’t give us justice. So, we are putting together a team to do wider research on that area. It is going to change the status quo in terms of legislation and also societal attitudes, children in general. And hoping that it’ll be able to introduce some new guidelines in terms of how you treat such cases for children. So, I found it quite intriguing. But more so, when we started looking at the issues we found that they’re actually very many… The trend is the same in almost all the cases. There’s a single mother who is illiterate, who has no money, who has no job, and then the children are taken away. Very same cases, very similar circumstances. So, we want to take some time and look at it, and hopefully we’ll be able to create some impact around that and also cause some legislative change. So, I’m excited about that.
Lindsay: Yes, that sounds like a real passion project and something that’s really worthwhile. And I wonder too, because as you say that the mothers who are losing their children in this case are illiterate, if there’s even an awareness on their part of the rights that they have to their children because they may not know. So, I think the work that you’re doing there is really important.
Lindsay: Okay, so let’s move on to telling us something interesting about yourself that most people don’t know.
Brendah: I have a large phobia for water.
Lindsay: Oh, wow.
Brendah: Yes. I cannot do a boat anywhere. My husband keeps teasing me and saying that I fear water even in a wash basin. Yeah, I don’t know where that came from, but I just can’t. And some friends of mine were telling me recently that you need to get over that fear, and just plan a date and take a boat ride to an island somewhere. But even just the idea of thinking about it, ooh is… Yes, so any advice on that, I would be grateful.
Lindsay: I understand because I have a very bad fear of heights. So anytime someone talks to me about having a very bad fear of something, as long as it’s not really interfering with your life, I tend to be very empathetic. So, it’s one of those things where even if I don’t really understand the fear, I have a similar fear. So, I think, well, if it’s not interfering with your life, just go with it.
Brendah: But you do fly, don’t you?
Lindsay: It’s so funny flying does not bother me. It’s just being up high otherwise. I’m fine with flying, it’s everything else.
Brendah: Oh, wow.
Lindsay: I just can’t go up high anywhere else. I know it’s really funny.
Lindsay: And people have said the same thing to me about I have to get over it. I just can’t. It’s gotten worse as I’ve gotten older.
Brendah: So, you can’t do bungee jumping. You can’t-
Lindsay: No. Oh god, no. It makes my palm sweat just to think about it. Boats are fine though. I can do boats. No bungee jumping.
Lindsay: Yes. Now I’m feeling a little sweaty.
Brendah: Yes, sorry about that. That’s fine.
Lindsay: Who has been your biggest mentor over your career?
Brendah: Oh well, biggest mentor, that’s a difficult one. I think I’ve learnt a number of things from different people. But I think my last boss when I was employed in the corporate world, from there I learned from her, she kept saying, “You are as good as your last assignment.” So, preparation, preparation is key. Preparation will give you the confidence that you’ll need. It gives you self-esteem, it will give you winning that you’re looking for anything. So that was a powerful lesson.
Lindsay: That’s great. I really like that. And what’s the most important lesson you’ve learned over your career?
Brendah: There are always two sides to something. Even when we are providing advice, especially in terms of litigation, as you are trying to understand your client’s case it’s important to understand the opposite counsel’s case, the other party’s case. And sometimes when you look at it, you’d find that there’s a divergent point where whatever is taking you to court started from. So don’t be quick to judge, take a step [inaudible] all the information. And sometimes it is important that clients want quick answers, quick responses, but sometimes it is important to get all the information both for your case and to understand the other person’s case. Otherwise, you’d get surprises.
Lindsay: Yes, and especially in the field of litigation you don’t want surprises, or I suppose in any part of the law it’s not great to have surprises.
Brendah: No. Oh, it’s a very bad place to be.
Lindsay: That’s true. What would you say most people misunderstand about your field of work?
Brendah: Here in Uganda very many people look at lawyers as you are expensive, you just want to take money away from me. So, they look at having a lawyer on a transaction as a secondary issue. They don’t pay much attention to it. They’re always running after the money. And what I realize is that people come to us when things have gone bad. They’ve entered into a partnership or a deal that they can’t carefully walk out of or very quickly walk out of because their hands are tied. And when you ask certain questions, they say, “I didn’t think that was important. I didn’t think I needed a lawyer in the beginning.”
And sometimes they actually lose a lot of money. So, it is a myth that I think needs to be broken. The problem is I don’t know who is going to do that work for us. But yes, many people think lawyers are expensive and they’re just a total waste of time. They just come and say so many words and then send you a fee note. But that’s not the case.
Lindsay: And I think too, your point earlier about the work that you’re doing with corporate governance advice is so important. And I think lawyers do end up being very expensive if you don’t bring them in early on, because if you’re there to fix problems, then that’s going to be much more expensive than if you’re there in the beginning to prevent problems.
Lindsay: Yes, can you tell me about a client that changed your practice?
Brendah: I think I’ve actually talked about that. I went off and talked about that NGO with which we are working. I’ve always looked at myself as a corporate lawyer, look at a transaction, look at due diligence. A new company wants to enter into the market, and I’ll get onto the assignment. But after doing that work that I’ve just spoken about for that NGO, it’s not entirely going to change my practice. But that made me feel that I need to empathize more with people. Of course, as low as it’s important for us to empathize, but again remain professional as we provide the advice. But that helped me to think beyond the application that I’m filing in court. I am filing an application for a revocation of a guardianship order or an adoption order, an international adoption order for each child that was taken let’s say to Greece.
But beyond that, there are other extraneous factors that are very important in terms of this story. And I always take now the time to get the whole picture and look at the story. Sometimes I’ve also noticed that a client comes to you with a particular problem, but when you dig deeper you find that there there’s a pattern perhaps either historically, or chronologically, or in their relationships that you need to pay attention to. Let’s say for example, in the way that you engage with them, in the way that you respond to them, in the way that you provide the advice. You might find that there are other facets to the story. So, while I am looking at this client in front of me, I now take an extra step to try and look behind this person. Is there anything else that I need to pay attention to as I engage with his lawyers?
It sounds a little old school, but it is more wholesome. And you add more value as a lawyer to an individual when they come to you and then you look. And sometimes we give more beyond being lawyers, sometimes you just have to sit and listen. Sometimes someone just needs… We have clients who come to us, and they just need someone to first talk to. As I was telling someone in the office the other day that sometimes I feel like a counselor, and I need perhaps to charge for that. But then you realize that when you talk to someone, they actually feel better. So, I find that quite gratifying. And whenever I’m able to do that, I take off the time. I can give an example, we have a client who has a lot of business, but again, his business has very many cases in court of debt, lack of payment. He missed his obligations in contract, let’s say construction contract went bad. And there are so many and it’s so disruptive. So, I recall that I sat down with him I think about two weeks ago.
I just wanted to talk to you and understand why are you in this position? And then tell me more about your family, your background. And my goodness, when we finally… We had almost like a three-hour discussion, and what came out is that there were other societal social issues that were the reason he was in that position. And I said, no, we need to organize your business. We need to get out of court because it’s very disruptive. You’re not moving forward. You have to pay damages and penalties and da, da, da. So, I find that as lawyers, yes, we bill for time, but sometimes if you’re looking at adding value to someone, it is important to understand all the sides of the coin. Take time.
Lindsay: And that’s business development too.
Brendah: Yes, exactly.
Lindsay: That’s really great. So, to wrap up, can you tell me one thing that you’ve got going on right now that you’re really enjoying that has nothing to do with work?
Brendah: Oh God, what is that?
Lindsay: I know.
Brendah: I found some nice YouTube videos on yoga with very good calming music. When I’m not going to the gym or I’m not running, I do that. And oh, my goodness, it is so refreshing. I feel the blood flowing in my veins when I go to bed.
Lindsay: That’s great. I love that.
Brendah: Yes. So that’s my new-found love, I’ve done it for the last two weeks and I’ve really, really enjoyed it. And I don’t intend to stop.
Lindsay: Good, glad to hear it. That sounds wonderful. Well, excuse me. Thank you so much, Brendah. This was a real pleasure. I highly appreciate it. And thank you so much to all of our listeners. We’ll be back next week with another guest, and please take a moment to rate, review, and subscribe on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts. Thank you so much.
Brendah: Thank you very much.