Harit Sheth Advocates: Personalized Legal Services and Expertise

Harit Sheth gives an overview of the legal system in Kenya and explains how easy it is for foreign companies to come and adapt to the country. He also presents his boutique law firm, Harit Sheth Advocates.

Interview with Harit Sheth, Arbitrator and Mediator at Harit Sheth Advocates

Harit Sheth, Arbitrator and Mediator at Harit Sheth Advocates

Could you give us an overview of the legal system in Kenya? How easy is it for foreign companies to come here and adapt to the country?

The legal system in Kenya is based on the British legal system from the colonial days. Some of our laws are still archaic but some have been updated for the modern times. Setting up a business in Kenya is not difficult. The government is in favor of it. The only drawback is work permits. We can get work permits initially, but if the local people don’t do their job, then the government will not issue work permits or will not renew them. Setting up companies and achieving their goals is very easy. It’s not a difficult task.

Could you tell us about the history of Harit Sheth Advocates, as well as your main areas of actuation, which are “Corporate Law”, “Property, Conveyancing, Land Landlord & Tenant Law”, “Alternative Dispute Resolution”, as well as “Banking, Finance & Securities Law”?

I love solving problems for clients and for different parties through arbitration. I’m a qualified arbitrator and a qualified mediator, so I can solve problems without resorting to courts.

My firm was set up in 1986. My uncle was a lawyer and he is the one who encouraged me to go and study law. When I came back, I worked for another law firm for a couple of years to get local training, and then I set up my own shop. It was my own little kiosk. Our firm is very boutique. We are not a very large firm but we specialize in certain areas, and our aim is to provide personalized service for our individual clients. My specialty is corporate structuring. We have worked quite a lot in litigation. We have practiced in different countries as well, with cases in the US, UK, Switzerland, India, Uganda, Tanzania and many other countries. Practicing out of the jurisdiction is not a problem because I engage local lawyers. My specialty is corporate work and conveyancing. We do a lot of global interest business, but we are specialized. We don’t do anything and everything. We don’t do regular cases. We don’t do criminal work. But when an expertise is required by the client, then we will outsource. We will find the right firm to deal with it.

Why should I choose you as my lawyer and not some other firm?

Because you can trust me to give you the right advice. That is our specialty. If we do not believe we have a good case or a good batter, we will tell you up front whether this is worth pursuing. Because we are not interested in fees, we are interested in building relationships. And we will give you the expertise you require. If we don’t have it we’ll outsource it. We are not scared of outsourcing. We won’t take a risk for the client on things we don’t have.

Could you give us an example of a success story?

We have quite a few. A lot of them are in the banking industry. One of the biggest cases we ever did was against Barclays Bank here in Kenya, where the client wanted to get their serviceship out. And now, that case is being taught in law schools. We also have a success story with Citibank. We created a lot of jurisprudence in the Court of Appeal. Our biggest success is mediation and solving problems for clients out of court. That’s where our expertise comes in, because we always advise the client that litigation is only a last resort. If we can solve your problem earlier, we try and solve it. And the best part is arbitration. I love solving problems for clients and for different parties through arbitration. I’m a qualified arbitrator and a qualified mediator, so I can solve problems without resorting to courts.

What are the main challenges of the legal system in Kenya? What are the main problems that foreign companies face upon arrival?

Our courts are congested and things don’t move fast. There is also the issue of corruption in the courts. People say that some of the judges are corrupt, you can see this from the judgements they deliver, but finding evidence is difficult. Then you have to work through the Court of Appeal where, hopefully you will find the right three judges to take it up, and then the Supreme Court.

Is there anything that could be done to overcome this issue? Is there any government regulation body that is put in place?

There is the Judicial Service Commission, which regulates the conduct of the judges. Until a complaint is filed, a judge will not get investigated. Some lawyers are reluctant to file complaints because they will get backlash from other judges. Not all judges are bad. We have a lot of good judges as well. It all depends on who is going to hear your case at the end of the day. Otherwise, the other Regulatory Board is good for business here. It’s not difficult. Day to day work is fine. It’s good for somebody to come here. Kenya has great opportunities for business. Kenya is considered to be the “Switzerland of Africa” because the foreign currency laws are relaxed. You can bring in foreign currency and take it out again. Kenya is the hub for eastern and central Africa. People come here to do business from all these countries. The headquarters for many multinational companies are set up here.

Are you planning any type of partnerships with other law firms in order to expand internationally or setting up offices abroad?

There’s always a possibility, but it is always on a firm by firm basis. For example, if I have a particular matter in India, I look for the right law firm who is good at that specialty to do that work. We don’t have general partnerships, we have selective partnerships with other law firms with whom we work. And we are open to new partnerships with new firms.

Do you have offices abroad, or just in Nairobi?

Just in Nairobi. But we have other law firm offices overseas with whom we work.

What is your vision for the future of the sector in the next 2-3 years? Will we see things evolve and change in the legal system in Kenya?

No. Things are already evolving. We have the New Companies Act which is already in effect. We are going to see a number of changes coming in from the new laws. Otherwise, the legal system will remain stable over the next few years. The only challenge we will see next year is with our elections. And after the elections, we will see a lot of petitions coming in to challenge the results of the presidential election, MPs, governors or senators.

What would you like to have achieved in your law firm in the next 2-3 years. How do you see the company growing?

I’m now reaching 60 and I am very comfortable with where I am and with where our boutique firm is. I don’t see myself expanding and I don’t want to. The more you expand or merge with others, the more you lose control over the firm. I’m very happy with the practice the way it is. We have ample work which will continue to flow from our existing clients. So, no plans for expansion at all.

What would be your message to the international business community and investors considering Kenya as a destination?

This is the only continent left that has not been fully utilized. If the investors don’t come now, they are going to miss the opportunities. The Chinese are here, the British have been here before, the Indians are coming in, and you’ve got the Americans and Europeans knocking on our door now as well. This is the right time to come in and make the most of the opportunity before other international investors come in and take it. It’s going to be a lost opportunity. So take it now. Come now, before it’s too late.

Why Kenya specifically? For example, Tanzania is a country with a lot of opportunities and huge growth…

Tanzania was a socialist country. It has only now recently reformed. Tanzania is laid-back. You will not get the skills or skilled labor over there which you need for your business. Kenya is a developed economy. You’ve got the infrastructure, all the skills, architects, engineers, everybody. I’ve got clients who are doing property projects in Tanzania and they have to take their own architects and engineers and skilled labor into Tanzania to develop. Tanzania doesn’t have it. Uganda doesn’t have it. Kenya has it. From Kenya you can expand into Somalia, Sudan, wherever you want to go. You will find all the right caliber of people here. And the infrastructure is there. And we’ve got foreign exchange regulations which open up everything for people, which you won’t find anywhere else. Kenya has a lot of opportunities and openness for people to work here, to come and develop. It’s an excellent place. The best part of Kenya, which you will not find anywhere in the world, is our climate. We have the best climate in the world. Our maximum temperatures, which might last for a couple of months, might be 30 degrees and our coldest months might be about 12 to 13 degrees. Our average temperature is around 20 to 22 degrees. Nairobi is a green city in the sun. You will not find any similar greenery anywhere in the world.

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