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As Middle East market strengthens, Dubai surpasses Abu Dhabi for international law firm openings

The financial crisis slowed down law firm expansion in the region only briefly - new offices have been opening at a regular rate since 2011, with US firms accounting for 50% of new entrants into the market, a surprising statistic considering the tendency for UK firms to favour the Middle East.

Within the UAE, Dubai is increasingly the preferred location over Abu Dhabi for the first regional office of new entrants into the market – 38.33% of US and UK firms have offices in both Abu Dhabi and Dubai, 45% have offices only in Dubai and just 8.33% have offices only in Saudi Arabia. To further support this trend, Fox Rodney Search has seen a number of major law firms pull out of Abu Dhabi in the last 12 months, and others are downsizing. Dubai is seen to be a business hub for the region and the preferred environment in which to grow a regional practice. Unless there is a client requirement to be in Abu Dhabi, firms are recognising that the city is too difficult a challenge to recruit for, and remain profitable in.

Local law firms continue to play an important role in the market, with many still preferred for local legal advice. Al Tamimi & Co is the largest unaffiliated local law firm and has 14 offices across eight countries within the Middle East. It is one of only a handful of local law firms which competes directly with the international firms.

On the recruitment side, Fox Rodney Search’s report highlights that international law firms are increasingly showing more interest in hiring locally qualified lawyers. A striking trend in 2014, as opposed to 2013, is that firms are hiring ever-more junior lawyers into partner roles. In terms of sectors, there has been a noticeable increase in corporate sector hires as well as in real estate and technology, media and telecommunications.

Omar Kabbani, Director in Fox Rodney Search’s Dubai office, comments “the idea that the UAE is & lsquo;over-lawyered’ does not apply to firms who believe there are opportunities worth exploiting on the back of existing client relationships. We have seen several US/UK law firms open in the UAE since 2013 and there are numerous other firms with their sights set on launching an office in the region. Since 2011, the number of new offices has averaged around 10 per year and 2014 looks set to follow this trend”.



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