Photograph by Callie Lipkin
A prime-cut filet might be the centerpiece of a New York or Chicago meal between law firm partners and business executives, while in Los Angeles they might dine on halibut and baby artichokes while discussing multimillion-dollar deals.
And in some parts of Africa, the meal might be made up of creatures seen on safari, says Jeffrey R. Krilla, a former U.S. State Department official who now co-chairs SNR Denton’s Africa committee. He has many fond memories of negotiating deals on the continent over feasts of bush rat and camel’s milk.
Krilla, 42 and based in Washington, D.C., now travels to Africa about six times a year. He fell in love with the continent two decades ago, shortly after graduating from Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. Those who know Krilla say he’s great at sharing that love with others.
“The learning curve for companies coming into Africa is very steep,” says Patrick Johnson, the international strategic alliance manager with engine manufacturer Cummins. Johnson met Krilla as an intern with the International Republican Institute. “When he gives companies a 30-second explanation of how Africa is not one country but 53 separate countries, he can do that in such a way that a lightbulb will come on.”
Krilla served as the IRI’s Africa regional director and he ran a village school in South Africa. He came to SNR Denton in 2009 as a principal after serving as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy.
Then known as Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal, the firm hired Krilla to grow its Africa practice. In 2010 the firm merged with the United Kingdom-based Denton Wilde Sapte, which had 13 Africa offices; today SNR Denton has 23.
Oil, diamonds and gold still make up the continent’s traditional commerce, Krilla says, while less traditional industries are developing quickly with the continent’s growing middle class. Some of the more recent players include McDonald’s, Wal-Mart and General Electric.
“The frontier is human capital,” Krilla says. “We’re seeing hotels, resorts and capital markets like never before. Fortune 500 countries that don’t already have offices on the continent need to start getting on board or they’ll be left behind.”
Krilla’s refrain about Africa is that there are many differences between the continent’s 53 sovereign nations, and not recognizing that is foolish. Perhaps on that basis, many of SNR Denton’s Africa offices are associate firms that retain their names. The firm has more than 300 African lawyers working out of countries like Libya, Mauritius and Tanzania.
“There’s different cultures, different legal regimes … there are wonderful markets there, but going in unprepared is a real danger for companies,” says Krilla.
A 1999 graduate of Georgetown University Law Center, Krilla is not licensed to practice law. Clients don’t seem to mind, and some say that’s reflective of how BigLaw business is changing.
“He knows how things work in Washington and he understands the ground level,” says Monica Oberkofler Gorman. “It’s quite impressive how he’s used those skills to put together a more well-rounded approach to an issue, more so than you tend to get from lawyers.” Gorman is the senior director of corporate responsibility and international trade compliance with American Eagle Outfitters. Her company recently hired Krilla for an international project that did not involve Africa.
“They’ve been very thorough, complete and practical,” she says. “We do not get that from all of our legal partners, and I would attribute that to Jeff.”