Are there too many lawyers in the Middle East?

Jonathan Berry manager at Robert Walters Middle East

Are there too many lawyers in the Middle East? How do you stand out in the crowd?

Jonathan Berry, Associate Director of the Legal Recruitment Practice at Robert Walters Middle East, shares his insight into the current legal job market in the Middle East and his advice for legal professionals looking to move to the region.


1. Is the Middle East a legal candidate or client driven market?

Within the Middle East, private practice & in-house are very different markets.

Private Practice is very candidate driven whereas In-house is completely client lead.

2. Why does this differ from private practice to in-house? Does this differ from country to country… If so, which countries?

Most Partners in law firms are open to considering an excellent lawyer, regardless of whether there is a live vacancy in their team or not. Ultimately, if a lawyer can add value to the practice by bringing a book of business or generating revenue by way of chargeable work, the CV will be looked at.

This is very different to the in-house market. An in-house lawyer does not “generate revenue” in the same way of a private practice lawyer and there usually has to be a reason for a vacancy (resignation, maternity cover, business growth, etc.). In-House lawyers add value is many other ways such as mitigating risks and protecting the business interests of the company.

I have worked in the legal sector in the UK, Australia and the Middle East and the legal market seems to be fairly universal.

3. What are the skill sets, experience or qualifications that’s the most sought after? And Why?

Private Practice – there continues to be demand for Corporate M&A and Banking/Finance lawyers. Again, from speaking to my colleagues in other jurisdictions, this seems to be a pretty universal demand.

In the Middle East, construction disputes is a consistently busy area due to the sheer volume of construction in the UAE. We work with the Chambers ranked construction firms who are always open to looking at lawyers with strong contentious experience.

In-house – corporate and commercial experience is the most sought after. One of the main responsibilities of an in-house legal function is to provide advice to the business on all commercial matters and legal documentation.  This is in addition to advising on corporate governance, compliance, employment and HR. An in-house lawyer’s role is usually document heavy with the drafting/reviewing of commercial documents which lends itself to a lawyer with corporate experience.

In-house organisations are usually slightly more flexible than Private Practice law firms on the common law qualification; as demonstrated with placements that we have made of Italian, French and Spanish qualified lawyers.

4. What is your advice for candidates to take home when seeking employment within legal in the Middle East?

For international candidates, the main concern for hiring managers is commitment to the region. Relocating is both expensive and time consuming for companies who want a return on their investment. It is advisable for candidates to have at least visited the region or do extensive research on what it is really like to live in the Middle East (particularly in the summer months).

Whilst the tax-free salary is a very attractive proposition, it is important to understand the cost of living (rent, food, bills) and cultural differences.

My advice would be to conduct all of the above and visit the region before actively seeking a role in the Middle East.

5. Are there too many lawyers in the Middle East?

This is a debate I have heard very contrasting views on. The Middle East is an emerging market and has grown exponentially in the past 5-10years. In an emerging market, there will always come a time when companies start to consolidate and the growth begins to plateaux.

There is a trend at the moment that Private Practice firms will always look to recruit internally first, particularly at the junior end. Global Private practice firms will look to provide secondment opportunities for lawyers from their other offices (particularly London) to limit recruitment cost and headcount pressures. This creates a very transient market as lawyers are frequently being seconded in and returning to their original office upon completion of a project/piece of work.

The In-house market appears to be growing rapidly as new companies are setting up offices in Dubai. Companies already with offices in Dubai are starting to see the importance of having on-the-ground resources such as legal, HR, IT rather than outsourcing to one of their other global offices. This is constantly creating new opportunities for lawyers.

Overall my opinion on this (for what it’s worth!) is that the legal market will continue to grow and provide opportunity. I can see the In-house market coming to the fore with Expo 2020 on the horizon and we are expecting an interesting and busy final 3 quarters of 2018.

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