The departure of half of Norton Rose‘s Dubai partners to City rival Herbert Smith left the firm reeling last week, prompting banking head Stephen Parish to fly out to the Middle East on an emergency damage-control mission.
Norton Rose’s Islamic finance practice has been the jewel in the crown for the City firm: a market leader in the practice area headed by the unrivalled doyen of the sector Neil Miller.
But with the departure of Dubai partners Nadim Khan and Zubair Mir to help launch Herbert Smith’s local offering, the firm has been materially weakened in the region.
Parish, who is also the firm’s head of the Middle East practice, admitted that two partners in Dubai was “not enough”.
He told The Lawyer the firm would look to rebuild the practice as it “cannot function with just two partners” in Dubai.
Rival practices, such as Allen & Overy and Denton Wilde Sapte, are secretly rubbing their hands in glee and will be looking to capitalise by luring away local clients.”[Norton Rose] is still very good at Islamic finance as a firm, but it is certainly an opportunity,” says one Dubai-based partner.
Herbert Smith will reap the benefits from Khan and Mir’s experience in establishing a foothold in the market after Norton Rose’s launched in Dubai in 2003.
It is understood Parish’s 11th-hour dash to Dubai was a desperate attempt to keep Khan and Mir with the firm. It ultimately failed and Norton Rose is left looking for Plan B.
The loss brings Norton Rose back to the pack as far as on-the-ground capability in the Middle East goes. The firm can now boast just three partners in the region – Graeme Muir and Tahir Ahmed in Dubai and Dominic Harvey in Bahrain.
Harvey led the Bahrain office as a senior associate and was made up to the partner ship earlier this year. Ahmed joined the firm in May, having been lured away from his senior associate post at Clifford Chance by the prospect of partnership.
The blow is especially damaging for the firm coming hot on the heels of the departure of talented senior associate Mohammed Paracha, who quit the Bahrain office to take the role of general counsel at Al Salam Bank earlier this year.
Paracha was a partner-designate and one of the firm’s brightest stars. He was named by The Lawyer as Assistant Solicitor of the Year in 2004, citing his “significant contribution to the development of [this] area of law”.
At the time of Paracha’s defection, a Norton Rose spokesperson said: “We remain well resourced in the Middle East at partner and associate level with Islamic finance specialists working in both Bahrain and Dubai.” (www.thelawyer.com, 2 October.)
The departure of Paracha was not as damaging for Norton Rose – since joining the Kingdom of Bahrain’s newest bank he has sent several deals the firm’s way, and will continue to do so.
Following the loss of Khan and Mir, the firm maintains it is still ‘well resourced’, but knows it must bulk up, and bulk up quick.
The most immediate solution will see Parish and Miller spending more time in the region, and it may result in a senior associate being fast-tracked into the partnership on the caveat of a full-time post to the Middle East.
The firm’s plight in the Middle East was not helped when the Bahrain office was embroiled in political controversy.
The Lawyer reported on 5 June that Norton Rose, along with Baker & McKenzie and Trowers & Hamlins as the only international firms in the Arab state, were the subjects of a suit filed by the Bahrain Bar Association calling for their licenses to be revoked.
The uprising of local lawyers unhappy with the international giants stealing the big-ticket work has been more of an annoyance than any real threat, but it has made for volatile times in the region.
The Middle East merry-go-round of lawyers won’t stop with Herbert Smith’s launch, but the challenge for Norton Rose is to remain aboard for the ride.