22 Aug 2019

Interview - Ernest Kaggwa Sembatya


Partner at MMAKS Advocates in Kampala, Uganda.

Ernest Kaggwa SembatyaTell us a bit about yourself and what attracted you to law?

My name is Ernest Kaggwa Sembatya, born in Uganda in 1976 during the reign of Idi Amin Dada. I am a partner at MMAKS Advocates, the leading corporate and commercial law firm in Uganda. I practice in the litigation and employment departments of the firm, handling corporate and banking litigation, arbitration and employment litigation and arbitration.

My attraction to the law was heavily influenced by the turbulent years Uganda as a country experienced as I was growing up, during the reign of President Apolo Milton Obote from 1980 to 1985, and the short-lived reign of President Tito Okello Lutwa from June 1985 to January 1986. These years were characterised by lawlessness in Uganda and no adherence to the rule of law by the state actors at the time. It was not unusual for people to ‘disappear’, and never be seen again, at the hands of state agents. Compliance with contractual obligations was more in default than in observance, and obtaining remedies from Court was no guarantee to actually realising them. As a young lad at the time, I dreamt of making a difference in society and in my view at the time, the only way I could make a difference was to become a lawyer.

Another attraction to the law was the economic and social changes in society which Uganda experienced starting in 1986 following the successful guerrilla war led by President Yoweri Museveni. This resulted in the turnaround of lawyers’ fortunes. Indeed, the number of students in law school has, over the years, increased; whilst in law school, our class had no more than 60 students, whereas today you will not find a class of fewer than 200 students. 

In terms of your career choice, who has had the biggest influence?

My partner and friend Timothy Masembe Kanyerezi has arguably had the biggest influence on my career choice. He took me on as a pupil for my pupillage and thereafter as a trainee. He has nurtured me both professionally and socially, and taught me almost everything I need to know about dispute resolution.

What did you learn from your secondment?

During my secondment, I was exposed to international arbitrations under the guidance of partner Kamal Shah. This included appointment of arbitrators, preparation of statements of claim, coming up with case strategies, preparation of witness statements etc. I am presently engaged in a Permanent Court of Arbitration and the exposure I attained whilst at Stephenson Harwood has been of great help to me in that regard.

I also had the opportunity of closely interacting with English solicitors and barristers (I was placed with Essex Court Chambers) and having a better understanding of their approach to legal issues and client relations.

What advice would you give to aspiring lawyers?

My advice to aspiring lawyers would be to work hard, work smart, keep an open mind and prepare for the ever-changing landscape in the legal profession.

Given Uganda’s growth in the last 5 years, where do you see the most opportunities for the legal industry?

Uganda is at the verge of commercial oil production and I anticipate lots of opportunities at all levels in that space. With the introduction of agency banking, Islamic banking as well as the growth in the fintech space, I expect vast opportunities in that space within the next five years. Opportunities will also exist in the agricultural space and the number of private equity funders in this area is growing.

How do you think the legal profession will develop in the next 10 years?

I anticipate lots of technological advancements that will alter the way we render legal services, and further expect greater demands from clients, which will call for a different approach in the handling of their legal issues.

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