THE SCALES that balance out the global economic markets are currently swinging in favour of the Middle East. Lucrative opportunities await Australians with the right experience - and the weather, the lifestyle and the money are increasingly making the option more appealing.
From Abu Dhabi to Oman, Qatar, Bahrain and the glamorous Dubai, the legal market in the Middle East is awash with money and with huge growth trajectories for the future. The legal work is solid and flowing freely.
The lifestyle, especially compared with other markets on the global legal circuit, is remarkable. Sunshine is constant, the weather warm, the culture abundant and the activities outside the firms - water sports, the outdoors, travel and the like - difficult to resist for Australians interested in making the most of the experience.
Once upon a time lawyers headed deep into the Middle East for one reason only, money. Jonathan Walmsley, recruiter at Dolman says it wasn't so long ago that lawyers there would not even bother to deny this. "That's changed over the last year. People still go because it's tax-free, but also because the quality of work is there for their practice groups," he said.
All this in a location that has remained resilient against the backdrop of a global economic downturn that has already seen numerous layoffs in the London and US markets, and closed off a good portion of the opportunities for Australian lawyers looking to find work in those areas.
"It's really one of the only regions that has been effectively ring-fenced from the credit crunch," says Louise Leecy, recruiter with First Counsel. "It's not like everywhere else is dead - but it really is where it's happening at the moment."
But as one of the few legal markets still drowning in work, it's also now becoming increasingly competitive as the best lawyers follow the money. Walmsley says: "The fact London and New York have slowed down means it's harder for our lawyers to go over there. The bar has been raised in terms of the standards the firms expect."
Having undergone dramatic growth in the last few years, there's also a sense that firms are settling in. "There are issues in the Middle East at the moment in the sense that law firms have grown so rapidly and they've hired so many lawyers that there is a little bit of a slowdown in hiring just because they've already hired so many people!"
The interest in construction and major projects is still going strong, while good corporate and banking lawyers will find plenty of opportunities opening up. "It's great for lawyers who may have been thinking about going to London where the market is severely dampened, particularly in finance and corporate," says Tim Fogarty, recruiter at Taylor Root. "The opportunities in the Middle East just keep growing."
Leecy agrees, noting that corporate and finance is really the cornerstone of most international practices in the region, but says that increasingly firms are building their intellectual property, construction, energy and real estate practices.
More experienced lawyers who may have skipped out on the top-tier or mid-tier firms will also find options in the Middle East, says Fogarty. "You can have more generalist experience or you can come from boutique practices, practices that normally wouldn't travel so well into a major jurisdiction like London."
But Leecy isn't so confident. She says the greatest gaps in employment in the Middle East are still the mid-to-senior level experienced lawyers, and that's where most candidates will probably need to come from in order to safely find their place in the region.
Large in-house teams reside in the region, meaning the options for Australians extend far beyond mere work in a law firm. "There are massive teams in the United Arab Emirates," says Leecy.
"Some of these teams eclipse the size of law firms and they're growing at a rapid rate. Generally, it's sovereign funds, organisations that are owned by some branch of the Royal family of a particular emirate - you could find up to 60 people in one of those teams."
While these teams may have originally only hired lawyers with UAE experience, Leecy says such requirements have now been relaxed. "Because there is better infrastructure in these teams now to do training, we're placing people who don't have prior UAE experience."
In a tax-free market, with salaries almost in line with what's on offer in the UK, the appeal of money in the Middle East can hardly be ignored. And it's nice to know Australian lawyers are still wanted somewhere.