Despite a brief rush of activity in July, when Baker Botts revamped its Middle East office with a raid on Norton Rose Fullbright’s Dubai team (16 July 2013), cautious optimism seems to be the name of the game in the region.
Law firms battened down the hatches during the recession and, while recruitment is starting to pick up, the situation remains tentative.
According to Matt Taylor of the Middle East desk at Noble Legal, “the Middle East market is recovering slightly ahead of the London market, but pre-recession buoyancy has not yet been reached”.
Meanwhile, Kamran Habib, head of Middle Eastern legal recruitment at Robert Walters says: “Between 2009 and 2011 the market was generally quieter and somewhat up and down in nature, but since 2012 conditions have become much more positive”.
The drip of work seems to have turned into more of a steady flow then, but where is it coming from and what can lawyers do to get it?
Jeremy Mead at Shilton Sharpe Quarry says a surge in major infrastructure and energy projects has sent demand for projects and energy lawyers soaring to its highest point in three years, while Habib points to a surge in work from areas such as projects, capital markets and arbitration.
But litigation lawyers are also in demand.
According to Mead, “the greatest demand is for disputes lawyers. Organisations are becoming increasingly confident in following this path when it comes to resolving contractual issues”.
But if the work is picking up, firms are not necessarily in a hiring mood. Many are erring on the conservative side, preferring to stay small and busy rather than take on new staff.
“There are fewer firms and teams are smaller,” says Taylor, while Habib warns that “many firms are preferring to see a progressive run of instructions through the door” before taking on new staff.
So which region should ambitious lawyers head for to get the best roles?
According to Taylor, “the majority of new openings we’re instructed on are in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha. Manama has been quiet, we suspect on account of political instability in recent years”.
The UAE seems the busiest place to be, with both Dubai and Abu Dhabi generating a lot of roles. But Mead says that firms are stirring in other regions too, with “Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman and to a lesser extent Bahrain all having associate and partner-level vacancies in the past six months”.
In the Middle East the senior associate gets the worm. Recruiters agree that the Middle East market favours more senior candidates with around six to eight years’ PQE, especially those with a strong client following.
According to Mead, associate vacancies are at the mid- to senior end and local knowledge, contacts and expertise are particularly appealing.
For ambitious lawyers seeking a challenge, everything could be alright on the Arabian night.