The private practice market in the UAE was challenging in 2018 as we saw some firms exit the market due to lack of profitability. It was a year of consolidation rather than growth, with the main recruitment activity due to natural attrition of lawyers returning to their home countries.
Hiring managers had to contend with a skills shortage of common law qualified candidates who were already based in the UAE. Due to the high cost and risk of relocating, law firms were much more receptive to candidates already established in the region.
There has been a high demand for dispute lawyers, particularly in construction, alongside candidates who possess a corporate and commercial skill set.
From an in-house perspective, energy and investments companies were the most active. There was an air of confidence about the market due to large business mergers and a stronger oil price. The in-house move was attractive to private practice lawyers who seek flexibility and a better work-life balance over a partnership opportunity.
In 2018, private practice US firms appeared to offer the highest salaries, followed closely by Magic Circle firms. In-house salaries varied significantly depending on the company. Major international companies and household brands are often providing good benefits packages and international mobility alongside high salaries. Overall, salaries remained relatively stagnant and have reduced at the senior level due to the reduction of the historic 'expat package'.
In 2019, we expect another busy year with plenty of recruitment activity and movement, but no significant expansion of teams. As in previous years, we will see relatively high turnover rates with a number of opportunities opening up for candidates as a result. Sectors that will be hiring in 2019 will be energy (oil and gas), disputes and construction.
Dubai is being used more widely as a secondment/training seat rotation for law firms, giving international candidates an opportunity to sample the Middle East before moving, thus reducing the need for permanent recruitment. With Emiratisation in full flow, companies will be looking for UAE nationals.
Historically, salaries have been the key focus for lawyers when seeking a new role. Flexibility, career progression and team culture will begin to take precedence as a new wave of millennials try to rid law firms of their old-fashioned methods of time sheets and billable hours.