Egypt is a country that has attracted considerable interest from UK businesses in recent years. Despite this, it remains a bit of a mystery to many people in terms of knowing its legal market. Egypt has had an enormous cultural influence within the Arab world, and expatriate Egyptian lawyers have been responsible for much of the legislation put in place in the Arabian Gulf countries such as Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Oman. Broadly speaking, Egypt has a civil law system that owes much to mainland European systems, with an obvious sharia element.
Cairo is by far the largest city in Egypt and the main centre for business activity. As might be expected, the legal profession follows suit. The recent history of the profession has been a difficult one: following the revolution in 1952, the profession was closely identified with the old regime and able students were more likely to be encouraged to become doctors and engineers than to become lawyers. In recent years, the Egyptian government has adopted policies designed to develop the private sector and to work towards a more market-orientated economy, including the build-operate-transfer system and other privately financed projects. Although this programme has proved more difficult to implement than was initially hoped, one effect has been to encourage demand for US and UK-educated Egyptian lawyers and to create opportunities for Western lawyers to work on Egyptian projects.
The Egyptian profession is still characterised by sole practitioners and small firms rather than the large partnerships found in common law countries, and by an absence of specialists, other than the basic split between those lawyers who are litigators and those who undertake chamber work.
The longer-established domestic firms would include names such as Zaki Hashem & Partners (1953), Ibrachy & Dermarkar (1932) and Shalakany Law Office (1912). These firms have long serviced international clients, as well as domestic, and have developed relationships in terms of international legal associations. Such firms probably feel less pressure to employ foreign lawyers or to develop specific relationships with particular foreign firms for the purpose of servicing their international clients. The first firm to be clearly associated with a foreign name was Helmy & Hamza, an Egyptian firm established in 1986 by two Baker & McKenzie partners with experience elsewhere in the Middle East. Helmy & Hamza remains in association with Baker & McKenzie and has established itself as one of the “names” in the Egyptian profession.
A number of younger Egyptian firms have established good reputations for themselves in the Egyptian market, but the number of firms with a strong international association remains limited. One of the difficulties for foreign firms in Egypt is that they can operate only in
association with a local firm unless they are content to offer only international (foreign) advice. The ability to formally advise on Egyptian law and to undertake litigation is restricted to members of the Egyptian bar. As a result, other international projects firms will often be content to advise out of their home bases in London or elsewhere and to outsource their need for advice on Egyptian law.
In terms of foreign firms with a local presence, Sarwat A Shahid Law Firm has an association with Weil Gotshal & Manges; El Oteifi Law Office is the local associate of Denton Wilde Sapte, Denton Hall having acquired the Fox & Gibbons practice; and Trowers & Hamlins was opened in May 1999 by my partner Sara Hinton, in association with Nour Law Office, which in turn was a recent breakaway from Helmy & Hamza (Baker & McKenzie), headed by Mohammed Nour.
David Wilson is senior partner at Trowers & Hamlins in Cairo