The UAE’s return to economic growth has led to an increase in legal hiring for both in-house and private practices, according to legal recruitment specialists. Such an increase, however, has not led to a large rise in salaries, with new opportunities largely filled by lawyers on the ground rather than new arrivals.
After a sustained period of layoffs and limited hiring, law firms are once again boosting their legal teams, said Essam Al Tamimi, a senior partner at Al Tamimi & Company.
“The trend has shifted a lot in the past 18 months, and particularly since the start of this year,” he said. “There’s much more hiring from both local and international firms. We’re all hiring and looking for talent.”
Local firms are particularly focused on taking on new lawyers with expertise in fields such as arbitration, banking and finance, and corporate commercial, said Mr Al Tamimi.
The number of vacancies at local law firms has increased over the past year as a result of expansion rather than people leaving, according to Jeremy Mead, the manager of associate hires for Shilton Sharpe Quarry (SSQ) for the Middle East.
“We’re not back to pre-recession levels yet, but there are a lot of indications that things are getting healthier,” he said.
At the partner level, demand for lateral hires within law firms in the UAE is at its highest level in several years, with a particular emphasis on experience in sectors such as energy, project finance and dispute resolution, according to Matthew Bold, SSQ’s manger for partner hiring.
“Firms are increasingly looking to interact with more of the local banks that are beginning to do more deals than international counterparts that have been struggling for the past years. The market is also experiencing an increase in dispute resolutions, both off the back of construction projects during the boom years and with projects coming back on line,” he said.
Dubai remains the most active hiring market for lawyers in the UAE, following a slowdown in Abu Dhabi hires after a rush of new recruitment between 2007 and 2009, said Mr Bold.
“Firms were expecting to pick up work in Abu Dhabi purely by way of opening an office. But there’s only a limited number of projects that are available, only so many entities to market to, and they often have long-standing relationships with firms who’ve been there for several years.”
The increase in hiring in the country has not led to a large increase in salaries across the board, according to Kate Bramwell, a legal recruiter with Hays.
Salaries for in-house lawyers in particular have remained flat, despite wider improvements in the economic landscape, she said.
“A lot of candidates who’ve stuck out the harder times are looking for a salary increase with their next move, because they might not have had one for three to four years. Yet many companies are still not prepared to offer such increases.”
The recent pickup in hiring also does not equate to a wealth of opportunities for lawyers newly arrived in the UAE from overseas, said Ms Bramwell.
“We get a lot of CVs from applicants from Europe, but there’s a lot of fantastic talent available in the region, so clients are inclined to go with people on the ground who already have UAE law experience,” she said, noting that hiring locally meant that companies saved on relocation costs.
The number of lawyers arriving from overseas this year is far lower than those who arrived during the boom years, according to an HR manager at a prominent local law firm. “In 2008 there were so many people desperate to come; it doesn’t feel like the same number are coming now as they used to.”