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Competition lawyer leading in uncharted territory

Aug 14 2016 17:19
Lameez Omarjee

Johannesburg – We’re sitting in one of the boardrooms at Norton Rose Fulbright, and Marianne Wagener, head of the antitrust and competition team as well as the life sciences and healthcare practice, orders her favourite “pink tea”. My curiosity is piqued, it’s actually “berry flavoured” green tea, she informs me.

The law practitioner is regarded as an “up-and-coming” lawyer in the field of competition law by various international legal publications, including Legal500 and Chambers Global. She was also listed as a recommended competition lawyer in Legal500, in 2015. She is soft-spoken, but her voice commands authority. I am in the presence of a leader.

Her passion and enthusiasm for competition law is evident. A pioneer in her field, her work involves investigating the abuse of dominance and cartels, dawn raids and regulatory compliance. Originally from Stellenbosch, she acquired her master’s degree in commercial law at the University of South Africa (Unisa), cum laude. Her eyes light up as she explains how her career in law began.

What drew you towards law and more specifically competition law?

One of the most daunting things to do is to decide what to study as an 18 year old as you are so young, and you know so little of what is out there in the big wide world.

I studied a BCom LLB which initially appealed to me as its broadness would give me the scope to branch out into economics, finance or law. As I really enjoyed the legal side of the degree, I then completed a two-year LLB at Stellenbosch. I also took up economics, which has been invaluable as a competition lawyer.

Do you consider yourself a pioneer in the competition law space?

Competition is a relatively new industry in law. It has only been around for the last 10 to 15 years, where other areas of law are well developed and have existed for hundreds of years. This presents a great opportunity for competition lawyers to make their mark early on in their careers and carve a niche for themselves within this growing area.  It’s a great area of law for development of young people. I am fortunate in that I got to be one of the people who could really excel in this industry from early on in my career.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

Dawn raids. I have recently done two of these. The Competition Commission arrives with police at an office, unannounced, to conduct a search and seizure operation. We go with big teams of up to 40 people. Varsity can’t prepare you for this. You need to be able to think on your feet.  

I also enjoy the diversity of cases I work on. I have had clients ranging from cement manufacturers and financial institutions to poultry farmers and locksmiths. You learn so much on the job as you need to understand each industry in which you represent a client. You also need to understand your client's business. You quickly become an expert in diverse industries and businesses.

You can never get bored in this job and you will never stop learning.

What are some of the challenges to South Africa’s global competitiveness?

There have been a few instances over the years where international companies have tried to invest in South Africa, examples include Walmart and AB InBev. Some of the issues raised in the competition sphere are related to public interest, such as job security for local workers and protection of local industry. This is a difficult balancing act to get right. On the one hand we want to protect the interests of our people and economy. At the same time we want to be an investor-friendly jurisdiction. If we are overly protective, we may lose out on opportunities.

It is important that as a country we avoid uncertainty in the business environment. If we can work at being a jurisdiction of more regulatory certainty I think it would be helpful to position ourselves as a more business friendly international destination.

What do you consider some of your greatest achievements?

When I started my articles at Deneys Reitz, before the merging with Norton Rose in 2011, my focus was on the South African market. After the merging, we became a global law firm which exposed me to an international platform. The global nature of the firm gave me the opportunity to speak on international panels, meet international lawyers and engage with some of the top regulators in the world.  It is amazing to participate on an international platform from a legal perspective.

I am fortunate to be the head of the competition team, at a relatively young age (33). I also head up the life science and healthcare group. It is an exciting place to be, there will always be a need for affordable healthcare on the continent and it is one of the areas that is growing across Africa.  Norton Rose Fulbright provides great leadership opportunities in a supportive environment and gives you freedom to have a vision and influence strategy.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I believe that law is a people’s business. When you are younger, you think that law is a lot about just reading and arguing, but at the end of the day, your clients are people, with problems, and the team you work with consists of people. So I would describe my style as people focused.

I am also direct in the way I approach people and situations. Time is the rarest commodity in the world and I am mindful of the fact that we all have time limitations.

What are some challenges you had to deal with?

This is a job you have to be passionate about. Lawyers work very hard and they do not always get immediate gratification for their work. The nature of the industry is that if a client has a challenge, they need help immediately, regardless of the time. You really must be passionate and committed.

The global economy has also been challenging and the legal industry has not been immune. You have to work smarter, and find more efficient ways of providing value to clients. It is an extremely competitive world and you have to be agile and provide an excellent service to come out on top.

What are some major lessons you learnt?

You really have to work hard, there are no shortcuts in the industry. Because it’s a people’s business, a lot of your success depends on your attitude, work ethic and ability to get along with others. Lawyers are strong personality types and it is important to not take yourself too seriously. You must learn to enjoy the environment, enjoy what you do and seize opportunities.

I also think I have had to learn to be more thick skinned. The legal environment by nature is one where people disagree and take different views. It is not personal.

Who inspires you?

Thuli Madonsela. We need more people like her in the world. Yasmin Carrim, who is a member on the Competition Tribunal. I think she has done a good job being a regulator in the competition  area. I also admire people who come from difficult backgrounds and who enter the system and make a success of it.

How do you maintain a work-life balance?

It is impossible to do everything and you need to understand that something is going to have to give. It is a matter of priorities on how you spend your time. Well-being comes in different forms for different people. For me, exercise is important. I am a firm believer in family and spend time as much time as I possibly can with my family. I am fortunate to have a supportive family. Without that support structure, it would be very difficult.

* August is Women's Month and Fin24, in collaboration with the Sanlam Enterprise Supplier Development Programme, invites you to help us celebrate and showcase SA's extraordinary women in business.

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