23 July 2012 | By James Swift
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International law firms in Saudi Arabia are turning their attention to home-grown female lawyers in a bid to gain access to new clients
Women who want to practise law in Saudi Arabia face numerous hurdles, not least they are not permitted to argue a case in court. But they can now study law at university in Saudi and a growing number of international firms in the territory are choosing to access the country’s new pool of home-grown talent.
It was only five years ago that Prince Sultan University in Riyadh introduced Saudi Arabia’s first law degree for women. Before that women who wanted a legal education could study abroad but there was no infrastructure to nurture talent at home. Today, there are seven colleges and universities in Saudi Arabia that offer women the chance to study law and, as the country’s second batch of graduates emerge, international firms in Saudi Arabia are beginning to take notice.
The situation for female lawyers in Saudi Arabia is complicated and while they are by no means on an equal footing with men, progress is on the horizon. Women can practise law as representatives and give legal advice to clients but they are not permitted to argue in court – in fact, they may not even be allowed to enter a court without a male guardian present. The country’s justice minister, Mohammed al-Issa, has begun to make concessions in that respect, however. In February 2010, he said his department was drafting legislation that would allow women to represent other women in family law cases and matters concerning women’s personal status, but not in general matters.
Even with the changes women will still not be able to open their own practice in Saudi Arabia and laws state that men and women must be physically segregated at work. This creates another hurdle in that any firm that wants to take on women must first create separate offices.
But a growing group of international firms in Saudi are choosing to jump through the necessary hoops to access the country’s new pool of home-grown talent as well as those who have pursued studies abroad.
“We’ve just completed the reconstruction of our Riyadh office to accommodate women and we’re starting to recruit experienced female lawyers,” says Robert Jordan, Baker Botts’ Middle East head.
Likewise, Squire Sanders’ Middle East and North Africa co-ordinating partner Kevin Connor told The Lawyer that his firm had taken space across the hall from their offices to build a women’s section.
“It’s the second year that there have been female law graduates coming out of universities and a few firms are opening women sections,” says Connor. “We’ve also begun interviewing women to join us as associates.”
Clifford Chance, which moved offices in Riyadh at the end of June, also built in extra space to accommodate female lawyers. A partner at the firm says this was done for international lawyers visiting the office rather than for new recruits, but the firm does not rule anything out in the future.
A number of the international firms in Saudi, such as DLA Piper and King & Spalding (which are both based on the 20th floor of Riyadh’s Kingdom Tower and so are exempt from the rule about having separate entrances for women) have also agreed with deans of universities that run the women’s law degrees to take on two students for a six-month placement every year. DLA’s Saudi office, in fact, has employed female lawyers for more than two years, according to regional managing partner Abdul Aziz Al-Yaqout.
And while most of the managing partners The Lawyer spoke with said that they believed training Saudi’s next generation of lawyers – both male and female – was to be encouraged as part of their corporate social responsibility and in line with their firm’s goals for equality, there is also a commercial reason for firms promoting the cause of female lawyers.
“We’re not just trying to be altruistic, here,” says Squire Sanders’ Connor. “Fifty per cent of the wealth in Saudi is controlled by women. A massive amount of power resides with women but they don’t have access to lawyers they are comfortable with. We think it would be great to have senior Saudi lawyers because that would grant us access to clients that we don’t have access to now.”
Saudi Arabia in the news
19 June 2012: Allen & Overy (A&O) has been mulling its future in Saudi Arabia as its contract with local sponsor Abdulaziz AlGasim expired. A&O’s association with the Riyadh firm began in 2007 as part of a five-year deal. The two firms have now entered into an automatic one-year rollover period. An A&O spokesman said the firm was now speaking with AlGasim about whether to continue the association but that no timeline has been put on the two parties reaching an agreement.
14 June 2012: Failed firm Dewey & LeBoeuf’s Riyadh practice joined US firm Patton Boggs to set up an affiliate office for the US firm, consisting of one partner and four associates. Former Dewey partner Khalid Al-Thebity, whose practice spans corporate, commercial, finance, real estate and Saudi-related litigation and arbitration, will lead the office.
23 Feburary 2012: Trowers & Hamlins was forced to terminate its exclusive alliance in Riyadh after its last associate in the city jumped ship to the firm’s local ally. Trowers’ exclusive tie-up with Feras Alshawaf Law Firm was dependent on the former having at least one employee in the country and now that employee has resigned, the formal alliance has come to an end. According to Mutawi, the associate, Abbas Khan, was frustrated at Trowers’ failure to redeploy another partner to Riyadh.