White & Case: life in the Middle East

Becky Kells spoke to a number of lawyers at White & Case, each of whom is currently based in one of the firm’s Middle East offices.

  • Last updated Jan 9, 2019 1:35:54 PM
  • Article Provided by White & Case
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The United Arab Emirates: Abu Dhabi and Dubai

White & Case opened its Abu Dhabi office in 2007. More than 10 years later, the firm has worked on a variety of significant matters in the area, spanning infrastructure, energy, corporate M&A, capital markets, disputes and more. Ali Shaikley is a Dubai-based partner who works in M&A and equity capital markets across the region. 

As a firm, we’ve always seen the need to have a strong presence in the Middle East; Dubai is where a lot of the advisers and investment banks sit, but Abu Dhabi is just as important, if not more, as a lot of large clients and governmental entities are there. We don’t really look at it by office as we are set up as a one-firm model—I’ll regularly be on a plane to Riyadh or Cairo, for example. 

A lot of deals that we work on end up being firsts: part of that is because of the growing nature of the market, and part is the deeper integration of the regional market into other global markets. This means that the legislative regulatory landscape has evolved over time. Whether or not the deals go through, it’s always a great feeling to be charting a path and doing something for the first time in the region.

There’s a current trend of the privatisation going through the region; it’s a good time for it, and I think we will continue to see a larger push in this area. At the same time, there’s a big move to encourage SMEs and entrepreneurship in the region. It will be interesting to see what will happen when these small businesses develop five or 10 years down the line. The UAE is a great place to live; I grew up in California and my wife grew up in London, and we don’t feel that far from home. At the moment we have beach weather, and we can enjoy it most of the year. We take advantage of the desert activities, and we’re well placed geographically to take exotic vacations.

As someone moving to the region as a junior lawyer, part of it comes down to what drives you as a person. A place like the Middle East might be a less structured environment for a junior lawyer as the offices are smaller; those who tend to thrive are more entrepreneurial, willing to take on first-of-their-kind deals, and excited by the prospect of adventure. You have an opportunity to be part of something; to see the changes that you’re making before your eyes.

Michael Gabriel is an associate in the Abu Dhabi office. He has been in his current role for one year.

The primary practice area that I work in is project development. The scope of this is very broad and can range from anything like drafting an offtake agreement for a $1 billion power plant, considering the best way to structure a project, to advising clients on regulatory frameworks governing the industry.

We have a particular focus on procurer clients in the Abu Dhabi office and as a result we do a lot of our work with large clients around the region who are focused on meeting key utility requirements for consumers and industry. We also do plenty of work for lenders in the region in the project finance space.

I love living in this region. It is dynamic, young, and is evolving in many ways to be ready for a post-oil future. It is also a real melting pot of cultures and food due to all the different nationalities who call the region home. As I have a young family here, I love the fact that the commute is minimal, the sun is always shining, and that there are plenty of parks for our children to play in. 

In terms of free time, there’s not much being the parent of two children under three! But we do enjoy Abu Dhabi’s emerging café culture on the weekends as well as trips into the mountains of the UAE (which offers a welcome respite from the heat come August!).

The most exciting thing about working in the region is the additional responsibility and client contact you get from an early stage in your career. This gets said about a lot of places but at White & Case it is a daily reality. You’re expected to challenge yourself and grow. The highlight of my time in the region so far has been working in Saudi Arabia helping clients navigate the new legislative framework for public private partnerships. What you and your clients do in your project literally helps set the precedent! 

We liaise with other jurustictions all the time. In particular, the project development team in Abu Dhabi operates hand-in-glove with the Riyadh, Doha, Dubai and Cairo teams. Within Abu Dhabi itself, we have a range of people in terms of where they qualified: Australia, New York, UAE, France, England, and Nigeria. 

An incredibly lucrative area for law firms looking to tap into the Middle Eastern client base, Dubai has a lot to offer. Aleksandra Stadnik is an associate in the corporate department, while Mikaela Nikolausson is an associate in the banking and finance department. Both work in Dubai.

We were both seconded to Dubai from London as trainees to sit in their corporate team. You get exposure to a lot of different clients and areas as the office is quite small (in comparison to London) and the teams are smaller, but the work still comes in at a rapid rate. It’s rewarding to develop this close relationship with clients as a junior lawyer. The sooner you become fully accountable for your work, without the duvet of protection you have as a trainee, the higher the quality of your work will be. When you are responsible for your own processes, you are better at anticipating the steps. 

In the Middle East, we do a lot of work for corporate clients, banks and large hotel chains. Another common type of client unique to the Middle East is family offices—private wealth management firms that look after investments and trusts for a single family. They have different cultures and ways of transacting in comparison to “typical” private equity houses, which is where our regional knowledge really helps.

In terms of moving out to Dubai, you need to think about what you want out of it. Every opportunity is there; you are not going to be at a disadvantage by not being “in the London market”, but you should take charge of your career and make the most of it. 

Living in Dubai, you can go to the beach, have picnics in the desert and generally enjoy the climate. The working hours are not that different to London; however, a number of factors—being able to drive around, money and good weather—mean that the quality of life is better here and you are able to use your free time more efficiently. Whether you start playing sport regularly or even just go for a walk to enjoy the weather, you feel as though you are on holiday. If you are considering moving to Dubai after qualifying, we would definitely recommend doing the training contract in London, as it’s a robust system which will set you up for international practice. As a junior, your greatest contribution to the team is not (at this point) your skills, but your attitude and you internal network. So even if you choose to go out to a Middle-Eastern location, make sure you give 100% to each of your training departments and stay in touch with them—your internal network is particularly important when moving abroad.

Cairo, Egypt 

White & Case’s Cairo office opened in 2016, and is the firm’s second base in Africa after Johannesburg. The team is currently 16-strong, including four partners and seven associates. Tarek O. Mohanna and Sherief Rashed are partners who have been in the Cairo office since it opened.

White & Case’s most popular practice areas in Cairo tend to be project finance, banking, capital markets, corporate M&A and private equity. As a deeply-integrated, full-service law firm, we can basically do whatever’s being offered by White & Case internationally. For example, we don’t have a dispute practice in Cairo, but we have about six ongoing arbitrations that involve our clients, handled by the wider firm.

Cairo is a strategic location, with trade agreements giving access to more than 1 billion people in Africa, Europe and Asia. Clients tend to be corporate, ranging from multi-national companies to American, European and Gulf-based companies who want to do work in Egypt. There’s also an element of some government work, such as the government privatisation programme that we’re working on. 

The firm has been doing work in Cairo for the past 20 years and has always had a lot of Egyptian clients, so since we joined the firm, we’ve always known that ultimately, we’d end up in Cairo. Building up the new office has been a big highlight. Seeing it work—developing a significant market share and leading in a number of practice areas in just two years—is a massive achievement. 

Starting a new office has its own challenges—you identify the talent, you bring them on board and you integrate them into the White & Case culture. The level of support and quality of work you get as a trainee or NQ is the same across every office of the firm, and there’s no distinct place where you will get a better education and experience. So where you choose to work becomes a personal choice. In general, smaller offices allow young lawyers to get more exposure than in larger offices. 

If you’re someone who joins White & Case knowing that you want to work in Cairo, spend time in London. Get exposure to the different markets knowing that you’ll be going back to the markets in Egypt. It’s also important to be flexible and culturally aware; as much as the work is the same, there’s a very strong cultural element of doing business in the Middle East in terms of how you treat clients and how you communicate with them.

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Riyadh is the bustling capital of Saudi Arabia and presents multiple opportunities as a legal hub. Yazeed Al-Toaimi and Adam Pierson are both partners working in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

In Riyadh, White & Case practises in association with the Law Firm of AlSalloum and AlToaimi. We’ve had a Saudi office since 1989; the head of the Middle East sits in Riyadh, so Saudi is a very key market for us.

Working in Saudi means being involved in the biggest projects—for example, the 2030 vision of Saudi Arabia sees the transformation of the economy, and has brought a number of projects with it: drafting new laws and getting involved in the privatisation of certain sectors. Over the years, we’ve worked for the Ministries of Energy, Planning and Commerce, to name a few—as well as for Saudi Aramco, which has been a client of White & Case since the 1950s. Work in Saudi does have a finance focus, but we also offer services in the trending areas via our international network, such as privatisation, entertainment law, tech, tax law, all of which are new services to the Saudi market. 

A highlight for both of us, and for the entire Saudi team, has been recruiting, expanding and developing local talent. In January 2016 we were 11 lawyers, and now we are a 32-strong team. 25 of us are young Saudi talents, half of whom are female; the highest proportion of female lawyers out of firms in Saudi. As a small group of lawyers, we make the effort to do something outside the office at least once or twice a month. It’s easy to get everyone together and we socialise a lot. 

One very important thing in Saudi is that we actively train our associates. Many have great educational backgrounds at top universities, but getting them to international standard and teaching them the trade is part of it—associates are given lead roles on major projects from early on, which in turn means working with the trade team in Washington, the disputes team in Paris, or the finance team in London. White & Case is a multi-jurisdictional, cross-border firm, so collaboration is in our DNA. 

You need to be the right kind of person to live and work in Riyadh. Whether a local or an expat, you need to have an entrepreneurial outlook, as well as being someone looking to take on responsibility. We do a lot of leading work, but we also have to be flexible; able to work across sectors without being too rigid. People looking to do the same transaction over and over again probably won’t be a good fit!

It’s good to be a fast learner, as the economy here is constantly evolving. The culture, too, is evolving in some ways; many young Saudis who went to study abroad are returning to form an educated elite with an openness to other cultures. This in itself is driving economic change. It’s a verdant ground for expats to come and work among open-minded, receptive people, who are simultaneously very proud of their culture.

How to work within the Middle East

Trainees at White & Case are guaranteed an overseas seat, on which they could find themselves in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, North America, as well as the Middle East. There is also the opportunity for NQ lawyers to take up more permanent positions in the Middle East upon qualification.

For more information about opportunities at White & Case, please visit the firm's website.

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