The Counsel

Expat Experiences

The Practice of Law – GCC Perspective

by Taimur Malik

Legal Advisor, Middle East & North Africa Region, Vale Minerals and Metals

The practice of law in Pakistan is unique in that along with the struggle to earn a decent living it also presents opportunities to the younger members of the fraternity to experience success, confidence and freedom on levels that their contemporaries in other professions cannot traditionally anticipate to achieve. However, the Pakistani legal profession is not entirely a level playing field and indeed reflects our society: it is fragmented and as are the opportunities that the legal profession represents.

For example, as a young lawyer practicing in Pakistan associated with a reputed law firm/senior lawyer (and this may be true of many readers of this magazine), one may find oneself representing the Government, leading business groups in complex business negotiations as well as representing international and local institutions on important cross border transactions having a nexus with Pakistan. If one is lucky and any of these matters evoke an interest in the media, one may even find oneself being referred to as a ‘legal expert’ shortly after being called to the Bar. This often only happens in Pakistan.

The Legal Market in the GCC Region: Challenges and Opportunities
On the other hand, practicing law in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region is a different narrative altogether. Most opportunities for expatriate lawyers that exist in the legal market are for lawyers with 5 – 10 years post-qualification experience. These opportunities mainly exist in the corporate sector for lawyers specializing in the commercial, banking, projects, real estate or energy sectors.

The Arabic Language Element in Litigation
The opportunities in litigation matters are few and far and are normally handled by local lawyers or lawyers from Arabic speaking countries (e.g. Egypt, Sudan and Jordan). This is mainly because Arabic is the official language of the Courts. Moreover, in some GCC countries, including the Sultanate of Oman, laws have been introduced in recent years to limit the right of audience before the Courts to local lawyers. However, as arbitration is fast gaining prominence as the preferred dispute resolution method and experienced arbitrators from around the world are vying for their share in the arbitration market, this is a potential area that has aroused the interest of many lawyers from across the globe and encouraged them to move to the GCC region and to test the waters by representing a diversified foreign and local clientele. Dubai and Doha are fast becoming important seats of arbitration in the region with cities like Muscat being regularly chosen as the seat of arbitration (under UNCITRAL, ICC or LCIA rules of arbitration) by local businesses.

Local and International Collaboration
The legal market in the GCC countries is divided mainly between international firms with local offices, large full-service local firms (often with formal associations with leading international law firms) and small (mainly litigation oriented) local law firms. Most big ticket transactions are handled by the few international law firms with local offices or by the even fewer full-service local law firms. The local firms are ‘local’ only in the sense that these are (partly or fully) owned by (prominent) local lawyers and in fact these firms are almost entirely staffed by experienced and qualified expatriate lawyers from all over the world. The two leading ‘local’ firms in the Sultanate of Oman have dozens of western qualified lawyers hailing from different countries with the ability to handle client queries in most of the major languages.
Set up and Structure of Firms (Local and International)
The set-up and structure of leading international and local law firms in the GCC countries (except perhaps the UAE) is different from the structure of leading law firms in certain Western jurisdictions and although specializations are important, lawyers are expected to be flexible and are often required to take on more general work from time to time. Accordingly, with the exception of the largest firms, lawyers at most firms can expect to be involved in work beyond their areas of specialization or interest. For example, depending on the work load of a firm, a banking and finance lawyer may be involved in conducting legal due diligence of a company or answering lengthy questionnaires on doing business in that jurisdiction. Obviously, a general practitioner is less likely to be involved in complex banking assignments than a banking specialist.

Penetrating the Market
The local offices of international law firms rely on client referrals from their other offices around the world and also try to win mandates from the local market. For example, if a Fortune 500 company is using a law firm in London and Dubai, it is likely to use the same law firm in Muscat and Doha. On the other hand, international law firms face an uphill task in procuring work from local businesses because of their higher hourly charge out rates. However, governments and government entities continue to view these firms favourably because of their established international presence and track record.

Large local law firms have a slightly different model and each major local firm acts as a correspondent office for dozens of international and regional law firms which do not have own offices in that country. For example, my previous law firm in Oman receives client referrals from as many as 70 such firms in relation to doing business in and with Oman. In many cases, the foreign firms referring the work will do the project management of the transaction at their end, act as the client for the local firm for billing purposes and outsource mainly local law work to the correspondent law firm. Most legal work emanating from local business houses goes to such local firms which normally have established retainer relationships with such business groups and offer more value for money.

Hybrid Legal System
It is important to note that the Egyptian Civil Code has been the source and inspiration for numerous Middle Eastern jurisdictions, including Libya, Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait and, more recently, Oman. However, it would be incorrect to state that countries like Oman have a pure civil law system. Indeed, Oman still does not have a civil code which is usually the cornerstone of a civil law jurisdiction. Moreover, Article 2 of Oman’s Basic Law of 1996 states that “Islamic Shariah is the basis of legislation”. Furthermore, there are a large number of common-law qualified lawyers in the GCC countries and most complex agreements (such as project financing documents and EPC contracts) are subject to the laws of England & Wales. This has led to the evolution of a somewhat hybrid legal system in the GCC countries in which common law trained lawyers are as welcome and comfortable as their civil law trained colleagues.

Concluding Thoughts
From the perspective of expatriate lawyers, working at the leading local firms in GCC countries presents an interesting opportunity to work with leading law firms from jurisdictions such as the US, UK, Far East, Australia and China on a diverse range of matters and to learn from their respective best practices. Similarly, working at local offices of international law firms also has various advantages and is perhaps more beneficial if one intends to embark on an international legal career that is not limited to the Middle East.

In many ways, Pakistani lawyers have a definite edge over their western colleagues in terms of understanding the local environment, client requirements and expectations and this invariably results in better client management. Moreover, the fact that a substantial percentage of the top management at banks, listed companies and international accountancy firms is from the subcontinent is also an advantage for lawyers from the same region.

Accordingly, well qualified lawyers who have been trained in Pakistan in a meaningful manner from a corporate / commercial perspective and who rely on client networks to enhance their practice may find the GCC region as particularly fascinating. In a culture that thrives on interpersonal skills and interaction, together with sound practical legal advice, Pakistani lawyers may find unique opportunities to excel and develop a client base that is local as well as international.

Taimur Malik worked as Executive Director of the Research Society of International Law (RSIL) Pakistan and with Ahmer Bilal Soofi & Co before joining a leading law firm in the Sultanate of Oman. He is now Legal Advisor (MENA & Asia) at Vale (formerly known as CVRD), world’s second largest mining and diversified metals company.