In just eight years in the region, DLA Piper has peaked, plummeted and, according to its Middle East and North Africa boss, is now peaking again. It has certainly been a rollercoaster ride for the law firm, which, internationally, is one of the largest in the world.
“We were strongly hit by the GFC [global financial crisis] specifically because a large part of our client base was development companies who then stopped many of their projects. A lot of our lawyers were involved in a lot of these projects that were stopped,” says Aziz Abdullah Al Yaqout, the man put in charge of saving the company’s regional operations in 2009 and then restoring it to today’s level of 150 lawyers.
A Kuwaiti-German, Al Yaqout was one of, if not the first, Arab to sit on the board of an international law firm, which he did for three years. As well as his success leading DLA Piper’s German operations, Al Yaqout’s nationality was key to his MENA appointment.
“My remit was that as a Kuwaiti and a GCC national I would probably have a better hand at understanding what clients required in the region because I speak the language, because I come from there, because I grew up in Kuwait.
“The beginning here, from my perspective, was quite difficult because it began with restructuring the business, really redefining who we are here in the region and what we wanted to achieve.”
DLA Piper shed scores of lawyers following the crisis, including many who had signed up to start but were axed before their first day.
But a few years later, the numbers have climbed again and surpassed the previous level of 120. And this time there’s more of a focus on hiring Arab lawyers, with the percentage of total staff rising from fifteen percent in 2009 to 45 percent.
Al Yaqout’s goal is 50 percent. “Arabic-speaking lawyers understand the culture, what’s happening,” he says.
Women also are featuring more heavily in the company’s regional operations.
“For example, in Saudi Arabia, 50 percent of our lawyers are [Saudi] women, which I’m personally extremely proud of,” Al Yaqout says. “These are excellent and committed lawyers.”
But the firm has been hampered in hiring local lawyers because of rules in several countries, including the UAE, that ban them from representing a client in the courts if they’re a member of an international firm.
Al Yaqout says this forces DLA Piper to work in collaboration with a local company, doubling costs and often causing a breakdown in communication, affecting the quality of representation.
“We have to have a much more efficient delivery of justice in the local court system,” Al Yaqout says. “This goes for across the GCC. I’d advocate... opening up these markets for international law firms.
“[If] I have a UAE-qualified lawyer working for me, I’d like them to be able to have the ability to go to the courts, be heard and to represent a client directly. He can only do that if hired by a local firm.
“They’re protecting the local market. I’m advocating the opening up of the market because I think we can bring in more best practice, we can bring in more competition, which is good for business and ultimately it’s good for the client and therefore it is good for justice.
“It’s not only about making the money - it is also about raising the quality and the bar with regard to the delivery of justice across the GCC.”
While DLA Piper has managed to recover from the fallout of the credit crunch and most of the region appears also to be rebounding economically, Al Yaqout says there are several areas of law still in need of an overhaul based on the lessons learned during the crisis.
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