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Thu 8 Sep 2011 04:58 PM

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Calling all lawyers

Legal profession's biggest conference arrives in the Middle East

Calling all lawyers
This is the first time in the 64-year history of the IBA that the conference comes to the region, says Jarrar
Calling all lawyers

If you’re not a member of the legal profession, then there’s little reason that you would have heard of the IBA. But come late October, when over 4,500 barristers, solicitors and judges descend upon Dubai for its annual jamboree, the name of the International Bar Association will be written large across the emirate. Given its size, the meeting is even viewed by some observers as the legal equivalent of the World Economic Forum. In addition, it’s the first time that the IBA is hosting its annual congress in Dubai — or even in the Middle East for that matter — which in itself speaks a fair degree about how the world views the local legal environment.

For Dr Abeer Jarrar, the IBA’s Dubai-based regional director, the conference represents an important part of a mandate that she hopes will give a shot in the arm to the varied and sizeable legal profession here in the Middle East.

“My ultimate aim is to raise awareness of what IBA can offer while also help the IBA identify what the core needs of the region are, whether it’s a question of building the legal capacities of private practitioners and lawyers, especially as there are so many young practitioners here, or building the capacity of government personnel in specific areas,” she says.

Jarrar’s journey to the IBA position in Dubai has been something of a roundabout one. Jordanian born and bred, she gained a master’s degree from a British university before being posted to the Jordanian embassy in Washington, spending two years there as a legal counsel. Much of that work revolved around trade, commerce, and  bilateral relations, and the creation of mutual opportunities of cooperation, and it was a position from which she won a coveted Fulbright scholarship to study her doctorate at Georgetown University Law School, which she completed in May last year. So why come to Dubai?

“At an early age I was determined to become a renowned lawyer; later I thought that joining the diplomatic corps and practising public international law for some time would allow me to develop the skills, the knowledge, and the professional network needed to become a successful international lawyer given the exposure and the degree of sophistication of issues you deal with. Then it just hit me when the IBA opportunity came along that becoming the IBA’s ambassador in the Middle East is like bringing the two worlds together and realising what I always aspired to do.  It allowed me to put my understanding of the culture, bilingual background and exposure to different legal systems, at the service of an area and people that I am so passionate about,” Jarrar says. “The IBA Annual Bar Conference taking place here in October was the thrill that made this IBA assignment so much exciting and appealing to me.”

Established in 1947, alongside the UN, the IBA was originally planned as an organisation consisting of bar associations and legal societies, with the idea of creating a platform to develop professional standards and promote the interests of the legal profession. Some years later, it opened up to individual lawyers and law firms, allowing it to grow to its current membership of around 45,000, and 197 bar associations.

Nowadays, its many committees study and inform on all aspects of jurisprudence and legal practice, advising governments as well as individuals. Human rights work is rightly regarded as one of the agency’s most high-profile activities.

Last year, the IBA Human Rights Institute (IBARI) carried out missions in countries all over the world. It was the only organisation to have a full-time observer watching all the sessions during the trial of former oligarch Mikhail Khordorkovsky in Moscow. It has also monitored the Kuwaiti government’s suits against Mohammed Al Jassem, a prominent human rights lawyer and author, who was accused of insulting the country’s ruler. For years, the institute has lobbied against the death penalty and promoted issues such as freedom of expression.

The agency’s Dubai office was set up just three years ago, thanks to a grant from the Dubai International Financial Centre. Jarrar says that the location is the perfect place to serve the needs of local lawyers.

“Dubai, and the whole of the UAE, is one of the areas in the region where the legal environment is such that international law firms can come and practise, and you have a very cosmopolitan mix on the ground,” she says. “In other countries, however, the legal markets are closed. So, one of the things that I hope to achieve during the coming period is to increase the exposure between the open and the closed markets, promoting more openness all the while and across the board.”

Another area for Jarrar to concentrate on is that of engaging with youth. The Middle East and North Africa region has the largest youth population in the world, with the vast majority of most countries’ inhabitants being below the age of 30.

“That reflects on the age of practising lawyers,” Jarrar says. “Based on my interaction with the region, and having grown up here, coming back I could see that there is a need for training, capacity building, providing lawyers with the tools to be able to provide high-quality work, or to expand their business and increase their own opportunities and knowledge.”

With that in mind, Jarrar got in touch with one of the IBA’s specialised committees back in October to put together a programme for an event in Cairo during April.

“I had 30 lawyers from across the region and internationally, and most of were managing partners,” she recalls. “The response I got — especially considering I was new — was amazing. We had a two-day conference that was designed to teach lawyers everything from how to establish an office, to accounting, archiving, plus how to draft negotiations and even people skills.”

However, despite all the planning, the Cairo conference eventually fell hostage to one of the region’s great challenges, the political environment. But while the event may be postponed, the IBA director says that the key messages were passed on in the preparatory phase and most importantly the excitement was created and the interest gauged.

“I personally believe that there are certain priorities, but being focused or involved in certain situations should not defocus us from continuing education, building capacity and moving forward,” Jarrar points out. “We’ve seen in the region that events tend to take a long time until they settle, so we need to make the best out of a difficult situation and move on parallel tracks.”

Another focus for the IBA in the region is that of female lawyers. The Middle East is, in fact, no different from any other in that while female graduates tend to outnumber their male counterparts, men generally reach higher rungs on the legal corporate ladder than women.

“The legal profession is a very demanding one,” says Jarrar. “Many women get either into different aspects of business, or tend to take extended breaks in order to follow up on their families, and some never come back. A lot of law firms have started to address this potential derailment and provide a way of allowing women to move those things along and achieve career success at the same time, but it’s still difficult.”

To cope with the difficulties that female lawyers face, Jarrar has launched an initiative that has seen three workshops this year discussing the work-life balance led by a former partner from one of the ‘magic circle’ law firms. A little further down the road, the IBA director also has two workshops focusing on local Emirati female lawyers. Sessions will be conducted in Arabic, and will include information on the skills needed to get ahead in the legal profession. Once these local sessions are complete, Jarrar hopes to bring similar workshops to the rest of the UAE, as well as other capitals in the Middle East.

For now, however, thoughts are inevitably turning to the annual conference in October, which won’t simply be an excuse for some of the planet’s biggest brains to spend five days talking shop in the World Trade Centre. Among the issues that the organisation has tackled in recent years are human rights, money laundering and corruption. On the agenda for this year will be discussions on how political events in the Middle East have affected human rights, the importance of an independent judiciary and how new media is affecting government control of information.

No wonder the UAE government is backing the event so enthusiastically, with entities such as Dubai International Financial Centre, the Ministry of Justice, the Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing and the Dubai Chamber all helping to market the conference.

But with thousands of lawyers from around the world registered, Jarrar is keen that the region itself has a good turnout. And to make things even easier for Arab lawyers, Jarrar is also working on a competition that will pay for all-inclusive trips to Dubai for 50 young Arab lawyers.

“I recognise the limitations on participation owing to the financial constraints and the political developments in a number of jurisdictions, however, this is the first time in the 64-year history of the IBA that the conference comes to the Middle East, and it is less likely that it would be back to the region before another 10-15 years,” she says.

As an opportunity to network, it certainly seems that the conference has no peer. This year’s local host committee features luminaries such as Essam Al Tamimi and Habib Al Mulla — the cream of the crop as far as local legal firms are concerned. They will be joined by managing partners from the ‘magic circle’. Just in case any more incentive was needed, the keynote speech will be delivered by Egypt’s Mohammed ElBaradei, while Justice Goldstone — author of the UN Goldstone Report on Gaza — will be co-chairing a high profile symposium on the rule of law on the fifth  and final day of the conference.

“I want to make sure that Arab lawyers are familiar and aware of the opportunities that the conference presents in terms of international exposure, experience, and exploring new business horizons,” Jarrar adds. “It’s a great opportunity that able lawyers in the region should not miss out on, or learn about after the event. This is the time to springboard young and ambitious legal careers.”