From humble origins, Essam Al Tamimi went on to found, a quarter-century ago, what would become one of the leading law firms in the region. Here’s how he did it.
Al Tamimi & Company - the law firm that grew alongside the UAE
Independence has been the key theme for Al Tamimi & Company in the 25-year story that has seen it established as one of the leading law firms in the region: a philosophy of independence of action that grew alongside the new UAE after 1972, and an operational independence that distinguished it from other law firms.
That individualistic business ethos was the brainchild of Essam Al Tamimi, the founder and senior partner of the Dubai-based firm. Now, a quarter century on in a much more globalised world and having accomplished his ambition of building a large and successful firm with local roots, there are signs of a change of emphasis.
“Independence has been a very important principle over the years, it has been a source of pride and of good income. But we are very realistic, and nothing is impossible,” he says. Other local firms have done big international mergers, while most law firms here are linked into a network of alliances with big foreign firms. “Perhaps there is a need for a merger, but not today,” says Mr Al Tamimi.
His is a very typical story of post-independence development in the country. He explains: “If you ask me what my father does, I would have to ask you back: ‘in what season?’ He was a trader, he sailed a dhow, he was a contractor. We were a big family, with limited resources. I was number seven of nine children.”
But there were characteristics that set the young man apart. He went to Al Ain University and there, partly influenced by a biography of Abraham Lincoln, the American lawyer who became president of the US, he studied law.
“I wasn’t particularly bright at school, but as soon as I started with law my brain just logically clicked,” he says. He was among the first generation of UAE nationals to be trained at Harvard Law School in the US, and after two years there went to work for the UK firm of Clifford Chance in London.
Eventually the firm – to which Mr Al Tamimi acknowledges a debt of gratitude for the sound legal principles it instilled in him – sent him back to Dubai to be a senior part of its established business there, but he saw a unique opportunity.
“There was an opportunity to modernise law practice in the UAE and I wanted to take it. Law was a new concept, and the legal education system was a continuation of high school, not at all like Harvard. And quality in law was not appreciated. I had ambitions to become a leading firm based in the region, and I didn’t want to have to check back with London all the time,” he says.
That was the origin of Al Tamimi & Company in 1989, set up in the Dubai World Trade Centre tower with three people. “I was the only lawyer but I had to do my own typing and filing sometimes. We worked from 5am until 11pm when necessary. What made the difference was being local and fully bilingual, that gave foreign clients a lot of comfort. Also the clients loved the fact I was a fighter, and would not take no for an answer. I could take an issue all the way to the Ruler when necessary,” he says.
He elaborates: “Access is probably the thing that foreign clients want most. They don’t care about getting 10 pages of learned advice, they want results. That has distinguished Al Tamimi from other firms: we try to provide clients with solutions. Less advice, more results.”
That approach certainly seems to have paid off for the firm. Just last month, it announced the opening of an office in Bahrain, its 14th office in the region, which gave it a presence in all the GCC countries, as well as Iraq and Jordan. Other new offices could follow.
“We don’t believe in a ‘brass plate’ presence; we replicate the Dubai model where ever we go. Lots of clients still want to do business in Bahrain, but the choice of law firms is more limited,” he explains.
The Dubai model involves providing the full spectrum of legal services, but there is no doubt Al Tamimi has carved out a reputation as a firm in the financial and corporate sectors, having worked on some of the biggest “liquidity events” in UAE markets.
It gives the founder a unique perspective on business matters in the region.
“At the moment, we’re getting good business flow from IPOs, capital market work, some mergers and acquisitions business, as well as more general work in the Dubai International Financial Centre and in helping clients set up in other free zones.
“We’re working on five IPOs as we speak that will come to fruition later this year and early next. The ministry and the government has been very smart in not approving IPOs for ‘dreamers’ but only on IPOs that will add value to the market,” he says.
As an adviser on the IPO of Emaar’s malls division, he believes that event will be a game-changer in regional markets. “It is a very attractive company, and its IPO is a policy to jump-start markets again that have been quite volatile,” he says.
There are still challenges in UAE law, he says, especially in the legislative process and in the training and sophistication of local lawyers. “Why should the rest of the legal system be jealous of DIFC? Why not make the national law system so good the DIFC system becomes redundant?” he asks.
But those are big, long-term issues, and for the moment he has a more immediate event to consider: how to celebrate 25 years of Al Tamimi.
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