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The Middle East is hot

The Middle East is hot

The Middle East spans a huge area on the northern end of the African continent, stretching as far to the east as Iran. (See Map). When discussing the legal market in the Middle East, most people…

The Middle East spans a huge area on the northern end of the African continent, stretching as far to the east as Iran. (See Map). When discussing the legal market in the Middle East, most people refer to markets more open to western commercial law firms. These include the United Arab Emirates (Dubai and Abu Dhabi), Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Without a doubt, most of the current action for international firms is in Dubai, which has positioned itself as the main commercial hub in the Middle East. With GDP comparable to any wealthy western nation, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is an attractive place for expatriates, who make up the majority of the workforce.

The legal market has undergone rapid growth in the last few years. To get a view of what life and work is like there for expatriate lawyers, we spoke to Graham Lovett, Gulf managing partner at Clifford Chance — a London-based magic circle firm; Cynthia Trench, the first expatriate woman to be granted approval to open her own legal consultancy in Dubai; and Mark Walters, a legal recruiter who has been based in Dubai for two years.

The Magic Circle View

Clifford Chance is the longest established international law firm in the Middle East, having operated there for 33 years. Its office in Dubai employs nearly 75 lawyers, all expatriates, including five who are seconded to its Saudi Arabian partner firm. It has recently announced intentions to open an office in Abu Dhabi, reflecting the growing demand from clients for high quality legal expertise on the ground in the nation’s capital.

Lovett says that a few years ago, the firm consolidated its practice into one office to ensure there was adequate supervision and to help ride the dips in individual Middle Eastern markets. As a full service commercial law firm, it operates corporate, real estate, construction, finance (including Islamic finance), litigation and arbitration, capital markets and structured products groups.

“The whole Gulf area is booming. Although it’s an emerging market, there are lots of high value deals done. The quality of work here is just as good as London, Hong Kong and New York,” says Lovett, who adds that now they have so many lawyers working in Dubai, none of their work gets sent off to London.

Clifford Chance has seen growth across all sectors, but particularly in Islamic finance law. The firm has tripled in size in the last four years and employs lawyers on a three to five year secondment from its London office, local hires — including Australians and New Zealanders that Lovett describes as good quality lawyers who can look forward to a career with Clifford Chance globally — and other expatriate lawyers from around the region and the world.

Lovett says the number of competitors in Dubai has probably doubled in the last four years. “Competition must be fierce at certain levels. There are a lot of firms we don’t see on the other side of transactions,” he says. A few firms have been burnt coming into the market because they don’t have a strategy to deal with clients, Lovett says, and have only come to Dubai because competitors have. “They low-ball on fees, are overwhelmed with work, do a poor job and lose their reputation,” says Lovett.

Issues faced by the firm include salary and inflation pressures and the need for more floor space. The firm bills in dollars and dirhams and pays its staff in pounds sterling. (The UAE dirham is pegged to the US dollar, which has dropped in value against all currencies recently). “It’s good for our staff but not all firms pay in sterling,” says Lovett. He says that salaries paid are broadly similar to London salaries, but there is no income tax. More than half Clifford Chance’s Dubai legal team are women.

Lovett uses employee referrals and recruiters to find new lawyers. “We look for top quality lawyers with excellent academics who must also fit well into our office. We don’t want transaction junkies, but people who are bright, ambitious, have an entrepreneurial spirit and an excellent legal background. You get client contact you can only dream of in a market like London and the weather beats England hands down,” he says.

The Female View

In 1989, Cynthia KL Le Poer Trench, a Hong Kong-born Chinese lawyer, moved to Dubai with her partner after completing her articles and one year of practice with a Hong Kong firm. She started work with Fox & Gibbons (now merged with Denton Wilde Sapte), leaving in 1993 to start a non-legal consultancy that identified Middle Eastern distributors for South African products. She returned to the law in 1996, giving commercial services assistance to her clients and then became the first expatriate woman to receive a license to open a legal consultancy. Just two others have followed in her footsteps since then. Her firm was awarded Best Service Provider in 2004 by the Sheikh Moh’d Establishment for Young Entrepreneurs — the only non-local institution to receive this award that year.

Trench & Associates practises in the area of corporate and commercial law, litigation, property and IP law. Trench says she has started picking up some big international clients, including Asian transport companies and Korean construction companies. “Some of them are surprised when they meet me to discover I’m Chinese,” she says in her very British accent.

She has found no problems on the client side working as a female lawyer in Dubai, because she says clients are just looking for a good lawyer. “The worst thing about being a successful female owner of a law firm is the innuendo from some competitors that I could not have done this by myself. Some people believe that my landlord must be my business partner. As a woman, I have gotten places because I am aggressive, driven, charming and efficient,” she says.

Trench says there is a great attitude to work/life balance in her firm and that lawyers leave firms in Dubai usually for more money, a better work/life balance environment or to move in-house.

She says Australian lawyers looking to work in Dubai should go there during the interview period to check things out. “Do a feasibility study first to look at the cost of living. Make sure the firm is reputable and investigate the training they offer,” she advises.

The Recruiter’s View

Mark Walters moved to Dubai two years ago, opening offices there for the London and Sydney-based recruitment company, First Counsel. He and another consultant, Abby Walters, cover the private practice and in-house markets respectively, working with all the international UK and US firms and top-tier local practices. They recruit whole teams as well as individuals and source candidates from the domestic market and the rest of the world.

“We have grown the in-house market here enormously in the last two years and because we are on the ground, have been able to move the domestic market as well,” says Walters, who adds that because there is a perception that there might be a downturn in Europe and the USA, firms and lawyers are turning to the buoyant Middle East market.

The legal recruitment market has improved a lot in the last two years, as more firms enter the market, more companies look to establish in-house counsel and there is more interest from candidates, according to Walters. “Dubai is the hottest recruitment market, but Abu Dhabi and Qatar are the next big areas to follow and Saudi has potential as well. There’s a smaller market in Bahrain and Kuwait, which both have potential too,” he says.

“Some firms here have struggled in certain areas or have misfired a little bit in terms of what they were trying to achieve. But if you have good partners in this buoyant market, you get good work. Because you work in smaller teams, you don’t have to bide your time before you’re wheeled out in front of clients. Personal relationships count for a lot in this market and you can build practices at a younger age,” says Walters.

First Counsel has placed new graduates as well as moved partners across jurisdictions. Age is no factor in a candidate’s attractiveness to an employer and neither is gender, unless it is Saudi or Kuwait, according to Walters. “Every market that is busy is looking for mid-level corporate and finance lawyers with three to six years post-graduate experience,” he says.

Most firms pitch their salaries at around UK gross rates, meaning that despite the high rents, lawyers are still 30-40 per cent better off financially than living in London. Walters says the standard offer is a salary, medical insurance, a flight home every year and help with relocation. He adds that in-house roles tend to be structured differently and place more emphasis on bonus and benefits.

“The main issues people have living here are the traffic, the building sites and the heat of summer. Some things, like opening a bank account and getting the phone connected, are difficult to do. But the visa sponsorship process is straight forward and security is good — it’s a pretty honest place,” says Walters.

He advises candidates to fly themselves there or to get flown by a prospective employer for a reconnaissance visit during the interview process.

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