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The Death of Private Practice in Saudi Arabia?

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I get asked a lot of questions on calls with clients and candidates as to why I am endorsed for Upstream Oil and Gas whist recruiting senior lawyers in Saudi Arabia. The reason is simple – the Oil price crash in 2014 forced my hand to make use of my legal background and now I recruit lawyers…Given Saudis oil rich status, I knew it well from my time recruiting virtually every position you could imagine on an Oil Rig.

The tie between my questionable background as a headhunter and the title of this article may seem at this point tenuous, I assure you it is not.  On 25 April 2016, Prince Mohammad bin Salman announced initial details of the Saudi Vision 2030 – an effort to deviate from a reliance on oil comprising up to 43% of GDP. How they were to do this would be far more aggressive and rapacious than had been seen before – and rightly so.

For the two years of seamless and fruitful recruitment in KSA, I had Saudi qualified lawyers with academic backgrounds calling me relentlessly asking what roles I had with top tier law firms in Riyadh, Jeddah and Al Khobar. I wondered, why I hadn’t been doing this for longer!  Since 2016, I am unashamed to say I have had two declined offers with two International Law Firms who I know are in the top five payers within the Saudi market (now before I have all you self-righteous recruiters with your specialist, trademarked check box qualification forms where salary is only one part of an extensive process…I know my market, so back off). What happened to these candidates? They moved in house – to the PIF and CMA.

I started to look at the market; where top US and Magic Circle firms were experiencing attrition. Without fail, it was to Governmental and Semi-Governmental entities who had benefited from huge cash injections by way of the 2030 Vision. Most importantly, this has been at the mid-level which continues to become increasingly unoccupied in private practice – such a contrast to a sector rich in talent and successfully nationalized to a level I would argue unparalleled in the professional services space.  

I caught up with a friend of mine who moved to a US firm very recently in KSA. As a Saudi national, he has always been kind enough to share with me market insights and his thoughts on where I will find success.

 

Q – Do you think the private practice space will continue to decline in particular at the mid-level and why do you think this is?

A – For the time being, the PIF have a lot of exciting and interesting projects on, with a number more in the pipeline. If these all come through, they will continue to look for the best in Saudi legal talent. Those with LLMs, excellent GPAs from Ivy League schools seem to be the ones who have made the move, not only to the PIF, but to the Royal Court, Commercial and General Investment Authority, the Capital Markets Authority etc. Some of them don’t pay as well as the others but the benefits are exceptional. They have been recruiting experienced lawyers as the hard work has been done for them in bringing them through. If you have an associate who has 3 years with ***** (top US firm), that’s indicative of their ability in itself so they will have no issues in bringing them on.

 

Q – What sort of benefits are you referring to and do you think these benefits are targeted to a generation of lawyers rather than a blanket benefits package that would suit all?

A – I see what you mean and where you’re going with this – yes, the main benefits are the courses that these guys pay for and I think that holds more weight with mid-20 to 30 year olds in whatever industry.  I know associates who have been offered MBAs and LLMs (although most already have them) at really good schools, hundreds of thousands invested in them professionally as well as good salaries in line with magic circle firms or just below. You look at what some of these law firms look for in hours and compare that to the work life balance in house and there’s a hands down winner.

 

Q – Would you say the quality of work is playing a role in whether lawyers stay in private practice or move in house?

A – Look, whatever way you cut it, if you’re good enough, the stuff you work on, M&A, disputes, whatever, is always going to be interesting. You may be guaranteed work at the highest level in house with (some of aforementioned), whilst law firms will be scrambling around trying to win business and compete for the best work or biggest deals but I don’t think this is a decisive factor, or it certainly wouldn’t be for me as the difference really would be negligible. Maybe I just prefer the high paced law firm environment and getting the work on, I don’t know.

 

Q – Thanks for your insight so far, and just to build on what you touched on there, why is it that you have not made the move in house and moved to a US firm?

A – As I say, I like to work hard, there’s a sense of achievement in beating your hours year on year, promotions, I just like it. The way I see it is the longer I stay in private practice, the more my stock rises and the more opportunities I get for partnership. Opportunities will always be there in house but whilst I’m young (kind of), let’s see what I can do. They’re talking about secondment opportunities to New York, London, Dubai and I speak to guys at these offices almost daily so there’s the international networking too.

 

Q – Finally, I’m calling my article the Death of Private Practice, something a bit provocative, you know? Do you see the private practice sector in KSA at mid-level dying?

A – It’s not dying, it’s creating opportunity, opportunity for 2-3 years to come through and show what they can do - but there is a gap in experience there for sure. How do I think this can be fixed? I think we need to start looking at external talent again, just at this level. I know that a few firms have brought on lawyers on secondment and Saudi is becoming a really great place with plenty going for it so I don’t think guys like you will have trouble selling Riyadh to a lawyer from Dubai or even London.

If you’re a candidate reading this thinking – I’m a mid-level Saudi lawyer – drop me a line! rsethi@leap29.com. If you’re a client with a mid-level mandate with me currently…I’m working on it ;)

Thanks for reading – open to comments!

Posted by Ricci Sethi