x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Lawyer fights for the underdogs at Dubai World Tribunal

Profile: Jonathon Davidson's law firm has built a reputation for besting some of the nation's biggest companies on behalf of smaller clients.

Illustration by Christopher Burke for The National
Illustration by Christopher Burke for The National

Jonathon Davidson grew up in a house so full of siblings and cousins that it was not unusual to see nearly a score of family faces at Sunday lunch.

He was the youngest of his one brother and two sisters and used to watch his parents with an eagle eye as they dealt with an eclectic mix of patrons in their roles as hoteliers.

"I'm from a big northern family," he explains. "I'm one of four. All my cousins lived close by so Sunday lunch was often a table of more than 16. You had to fight to be heard and when you were heard you had to keep people's attention."

It is this upbringing - having to deal with fights, spats and relationships with big personalities - that he believes makes him a successful disputes and litigation lawyer.

At 38, Mr Davidson is the managing partner and founder of Davidson & Co, a boutique law firm in Dubai that specialises in solving disputes and in helping businesses set up and invest in the UAE.

He is also the chairman of the British Business Group, a network of professionals that builds British interests and develops relationships here.

In total, Davidson & Co is currently litigating on about 100 disputes, worth from Dh5 million (US$1.3m) to hundreds of millions of dirhams.

In particular, the firm has made a high-profile name for itself going up against major government-related entities in the Dubai World Tribunal (DWT) at the Dubai International Financial Centre courts.

Mr Davidson says his firm is involved with about 60 per cent of the cases at the DWT, which was set up in November 2009 to oversee the restructuring of Dubai World and its then subsidiaries such as Nakheel, DP World and Limitless.

The firm often represents small clients and groups of people that are taking on the might of Dubai World and its world-class legal teams. One industry peer describes the situation as "Davidson versus Goliath", but with "Jonathon a Goliath character as well".

He is certainly not a small man in stature and has previously won caps for the Arabian Gulf International Rugby Board certified team.

But Mr Davidson, who has worked in Dubai for 15 years, plays down his profile as a pit bull lawyer consistently winning cases in the DWT - the litigation work makes up only about 20 per cent of the Davidson & Co business.

"People do see us as the pit bull litigators but really that's only a small part of what we do," says the smiling prop forward, before gnawing at a plate of chicken wings over lunch.

Despite the litigator profile, industry insiders say Mr Davidson has a highly affable personality, echoing his own comments about his upbringing.

Less a pit pull, more an underdog, helping the underdogs. He is well liked for his support of the pro bono scheme at the DIFC Courts, where lawyers offer advice free of charge.

Moreover, Mr Davidson's firm spends a huge amount of time advising corporations on foreign investment into the UAE and helping small businesses to establish their model, create their companies and organise joint ventures.

But given Davidson & Co is a small firm, there is no getting around the fact that it is involved in asurprisingly big proportion of cases in the DWT Courts.

Some might say more than its fair share.

Christopher Mills, a disputes and litigation partner at Clyde & Co and a mentor to Mr Davidson in the first seven years of his career at Clyde, once had to loan him money ahead of payday so he could buy a ring and propose to his now wife.

Mr Mills believes Davidson & Co's success is partly because of his friend's tenacity and also down to a little bit of luck.

"He realised his business plan was not going to work," he says of Mr Davidson's decision to set up a law firm helping companies with inward investment into the UAE just as the financial crisis hit in 2008.

"He quickly reinvented himself as a litigation lawyer. He went back to that. It's the litigation that's driven his business."

Mr Davidson is certainly able to admit when he is on the wrong road, and display humility.

"I would say there are much better lawyers than me in the market, many much better lawyers," he says. "I'd say what I can do is combine experience, relationship skills and an element of technical knowledge."

Peers in the legal industry say Mr Davidson is doing himself a disservice with such a comment.

But they say he has been particularly astute in seeking a high profile in the press for the cases Davidson & Co has won at the DWT, which has created a snowball effect of interest in his services.

The firm has not necessarily overperformed in the DWT, but it has been very savvy in promoting the cases it has won, observers note.

In 2010, the firm won the first trial ever conducted in the DWT court for Diamond Developers & Ors against Nakheel & Jumeirah Village.

It also helped Chris O'Donnell, the previous chief executive of Nakheel, sue for breach of contract against his old employer.

Davidson & Co was also involved when Nakheel demanded a retrial in a Dh57m case in the DWT after accusing one of the judges of falling asleep during legal proceedings.

And last month, the firm won a case for Ahmed Al Muhairi, the director general of Dubai Customs, who was awarded ownership of two luxury villas on the Palm Jumeirah after a legal dispute against Nakheel.

"I was basically born and bred a litigation lawyer. When I was training I did a real estate element and some corporate, but really from the outset I was a disputes lawyer," says Mr Davidson. "What I've done is cherry-picked lawyers out of silver circle and blue-chip firms. I've brought them to my firm and I've taught them how to operate in the real business world."

Outside the firm, Mr Davidson's time is either spent in his role as chairman of the British Business Group or in helping to coach his son's rugby team.

It seems can never get away from big groups of people, even here.

"I have had some amazing opportunities in the UAE. Be it running my own business, be it working with the British business community trying to help them get their foothold in the UAE, be it working with the new court structure," he says. "The UAE and Dubai has been very good to me."