Staffing up

Dale McEwan looks at how law firms have adapted their recruitment methods in response to an altered legal sector in the UAE

Legal recruitment in the ­United Arab Emirates (UAE) has always been easier than in other regions of the Middle East, but it is nevertheless an area that has seen change in recent times.

The UAE has now become a “highly strategic” area, according to Dubai-based Clyde & Co partner Phil O’Riordan.

“Recruitment is picking up,” he continues. “We’re certainly recruiting. But the days of big recruitment where firms went to Australia and picked up a few lawyers are gone. I don’t think that’ll be back for a few years.

“Bilingual lawyers are extremely employable in the UAE. Five or six years ago recruitment was just a case of getting bums on seats; now it’s highly strategic – firms give a lot more thought to it.”

“It’s interesting to watch how the ­market’s changed over the past three years,” says Gavin Watson, a partner in Dewey & LeBoeuf’s Dubai office. “There’s much more talent available to the region since the ­economic crash. This is down to the fallout from the crash.”

Watson adds that the high number of moves between countries in the region has been due partly to the maturing of the legal recruitment market.

“There are fewer players involved in that market now,” he says. “They don’t waste our time with sending details of the latest lawyer who’s done an LLM. They’re more plugged in to our offices.”

Husam Hourani, managing partner at UAE firm Al Tamimi & Company, admits that sourcing good local talent is becoming increasingly tricky as a result of competition from other firms.

University chasers

Even establishing links with local ­universities can be difficult, according to Borys Dackiw, managing partner of Baker & McKenzie’s Gulf offices.

“Law schools are only just at the beginning of changing their programmes to be more commercially orientated,” he adds. “Students are starting from a different foundation here, and language can be an issue.”

Dackiw says law firms in the UAE are in competition with major government ­institutions when it comes to sourcing local individuals. “There’s a general trend of law school graduates to go into the public sector. We rely on local talent. That’s always been on the agenda. It’s part of a long-term strategy,” he explains. “We’re more successful in having Bahraini lawyers in Bahrain and Saudi lawyers in Saudi [Arabia].”

Robert Jordan, the partner in charge at Baker Botts’ Middle East practice, says his firm is “opportunistic” if there is a superstar out there. “That’s the kind of people we want to hunt out,” he says, adding that Baker Botts is looking to expand and is ­”aggressively” looking for more lawyers.

“We’re here for the long haul,” he insists. “We’ll build a major practice in the region. We have an increased headcount in Dubai. Recent recruits have come from UK law firms who’ve maybe been in Dubai.”

Martin Amison, international head at Trowers & Hamlins, believes the market is starting to free up recruitment within firms, meaning more mobility within the region. Although Trowers has lost a number of lawyers in the UAE in recent months, ­Amison says the firm now wants to recruit.

“In the project and construction side we’ll be adding to what we have,” reveals Amison. “It’s difficult to predict though. The Gulf’s massively more volatile than London. We have 150 people now in the region and we’d expect that to grow by between 5 and 10 per cent per year.”

Eastern promise

Amison at Trowers says he is also setting his sights on the Far East recruitment market. “The Far East’s booming and there’s ­increasing emphasis on it,” he explains. “We may recruit from that region so they can interface with clients.”

For Al Tamimi the Far East has now become an integral part of the firm’s ­marketing strategy. At the end of July this year the firm will establish an Asia group within its UAE offices.

“We feel more demands and more instructions coming from the Far East,” says Hourani. “There are lots of tendering ­projects in China and India – mainly ­construction and privatisation projects.”

Soft sell

Closer to home, resources are now being directed towards the UAE’s soft infrastructure, according to Sadiq Jafar, Dubai ­managing partner at Hadef & Partners.

Ranging from higher education to the judicial system, this will be a “challenging and undeniably fascinating period of ­development and opportunity”, he adds.

“Beyond that,” says Dackiw, “the ­challenge is to get to the bottom of where ­opportunities will lie. There’s been a delay in recognising the impact of the economic ­crisis on the market. I do think the market’s very crowded. I’m not sure what the legal playing field’s going to look like in the next one to three years. I’d be surprised if it was static. There will be work, but it won’t be for everyone.”

Capital getters

“The big one people are looking at is capital markets,” asserts O’Riordan. “It’s been very quiet over the past few years. We’ve got to assume it’ll come back at some point. The question is, when?”

“The past 12 months haven’t been easy for anyone,” admits Amison. He says Trowers is looking to secure a role for contracting ­company Al Hassan Group on Dubai’s first independent water project.

“Considering an increase in fees is a ­difficult decision in such a competitive ­market,” admits Hourani. “We’ve not increased our fees in the past three years.”

As far as Dackiw is concerned, the ­survival of many firms in the UAE remains questionable. “I think we’ll see more ­consolidation and possibly some firms ­exiting,” he says. “Leaving aside strong local firms, which will do well, only two other types of firms will do well. Firms that have strong relationships and practices, in infrastructure for example. Second, boutique firms. All the others are vulnerable.”