Hidden talent

As international private practice law firms continue their rush to the Gulf, in-house counsel are taking on an increasingly vital role. But is the calibre of legal talent in the region up to the job? wonders Jonathan Ames.

Hidden talent In the sandstorm created by the stampede of international private practice law firms into the Gulf, the significance of the region’s in-house counsel is often obscured. But those heads of legal are increasingly important, if not crucial, to the Middle East law ­phenomenon. There are now up to 300 in-house lawyers at businesses across Dubai alone.

Justin Connor, chairman of the recently launched Dubai Corporate Counsel Group, says in-house lawyers “are being called on to be the primary gatekeepers and task managers to make sure that their ­companies are following the corporate ­governance framework that’s appropriate for the country”.

Connor has just moved from his post as director of legal and regulatory affairs at Emirates International Telecommunications to that of general counsel at Dubai-based private equity company Meraas Capital. He describes the legal landscape of Dubai as having become “far more ­competitive and robust”, adding: “We’ve seen a substantial increase in both the ­quality of practitioners available as well as the depth and variety of practice that three years ago wasn’t available in the United Arab Emirates.”

Nonetheless, the calibre of legal talent in the region continues to be a major headache for in-house counsel. As David Brimacombe, head of legal and compliance for the Middle East, Pakistan, Africa and Europe at Standard Chartered Bank, puts it: “London, New York and Hong Kong are made up of many excellent people. But in emerging markets, excellent people – and it’s those people who make the world go round – are few and far between.”

Brimacombe’s counterpart at HSBC, Melika Betley, maintains that the position is improving. “In the early days, a lot of the ­execution was undertaken by our London and Hong Kong teams,” she explains. “On the ground here [in Dubai] we’ve had quite small teams selling [but] that’s changed – you now see substantial [legal] teams on the ground who have the capability to ­execute themselves.”

But there are still concerns, with at least one outspoken in-house counsel pointing the finger at the global private practice firms.

Hamid Rashidmanesh, general counsel at niche investment bank Arqaam Capital and a former lawyer at Nabarro, McDermott Will & Emery and Morrison & Foerster, says the globals in the region need to buck up their ideas in relation to capital markets advice.

“One of the biggest problems here isn’t being able to come up with a panel of ­external law firms that you’re happy with,” he says. “Not all of the people that you would get in London or that you would expect to be here are actually here.”

Jonathan Ames is editor of Dubai-based The Brief