Dubai's decision to licence lawyers is a good step, but finding the right lawyer for your needs involves more than checking someone's licence. It can be a tricky business, and it's important to make the right choice.
Dubai rules help to separate the lawyers from the sharks
There are 50 sharks swimming around a lawyer at the bottom of the ocean. Why won't any of them take a bite? Professional courtesy for a colleague.
Like most people in the legal profession, I know what many people think about lawyers, and how expensive legal fees may seem. But do-it-yourself lawyering has its limits, not to mention potential harmful consequences. As business and family matters get more complicated, legal entanglements are becoming unavoidable.
So if you suddenly had legal problems, what would you do? Like most people, you would hire a lawyer. But how will you find the lawyer who will effectively represent your interests throughout the legal process?
Dubai's recent announcement on licensing and fines for lawyers - the Dubai Executive Council Decision No 22 of 2011 - unifies regulations for all legal practitioners, whether they are UAE-licensed or legal consultants.
This is a very important step in the right direction. But there is still a need for more regulatory and disciplinary laws to ensure that ethical standards are enforced.
Lawyers in Dubai come from different types of backgrounds, with all types of practices, experience and abilities. Until recently, international law firms and legal consultancy firms in the DIFC and other free zones were licensed by the regulatory authorities in the respective zones. Those firms have lawyers and legal consultants in various specialities who are qualified in their own jurisdictions but not in UAE courts.
Lawyers with the right of audience before UAE courts are trial lawyers and legal consultants, licensed by the Ministry of Justice to practise in the federal courts and by the Dubai Rulers Court legal department to practise before Dubai courts.
There are some specific fields for which specialised lawyers are required. People may incorrectly believe that any person with a legal education or training can render the appropriate advice.
While there is no easy answer, hiring a lawyer who has a demonstrated track record is a good starting point. But how can you assess this in the UAE, where lawyers are prohibited by law from advertising their services, and there are no associations to represent them? Some of the legal consultancy firms registered in the UAE are renowned international firms, but others are not.
While interviewing lawyers may take some time, it is often the best way to find the right attorney to represent you. Of course, the way most people find a lawyer is from a personal referral. So it is word of mouth and a combination of character and reputation that brings the lawyer and the client together.
The personal qualities you look for will depend greatly on what kind of client you are. If you are the no-nonsense type, you may prefer to hire an older, reliable lawyer. These lawyers are less interested in what you have to say, but their experience is impeccable. They are, however, usually expensive and not as responsive as you might wish.
If you expect to hire an attentive adviser, a young, inexperienced lawyer may be more appropriate than an experienced one. You are much more likely to receive more attention, but the risk regarding expertise can be high. There are also special considerations whether to hire a man or a woman, and whether nationality is an issue.
While affability, ability and availability count very much, affordability seems to be the main criterion for most clients. The legal fees in Dubai vary considerably among law firms so you are advised to shop around before making your final decision.
Whenever a client negotiates my fee, I remember my father's explanation about his black gown with its white fur trimming (which I wear now for my court hearings): instead of a pocket, it just had a hole in the side. As a child I was fascinated by the gown, and my father's answer was that the law was a noble profession that should be performed without compensation.
Early Roman advocates who were the first lawyers to practise openly were banned from charging fees, although Claudius lifted the ban and imposed a maximum fee of 10,000 sesterces, which was not a great deal of money at the time. Later Rome developed a class of specialists learned in the law who were wealthy amateurs who dabbled in legal studies as an intellectual hobby, not a livelihood.
The present business model of legal firms is not, I admit, to my liking. I still prefer the more boutique law firms more than the general partnership managed as a profitable business.
But the legal practice has grown and evolved. Lawyers like my father, who were family friends and consulted on domestic feuds, criminal charges, business matters, property, wills and even children's education, are no longer available. Lawyers now specialise in certain practices and, if you need an adviser in a specific area, you are better served by a firm.
In recent years, there has been an overflow of lawyers in Dubai as international firms open their offices and many former public prosecutors, police retirees and legal academics enter the profession. We may reach a point when there are just too many.
Because lawyers sometimes are called on to defend unpopular clients, and because some of them do not adhere to ethical standards, the profession is subjected to mockery and some nasty jokes. But there is no doubt that lawyers will continue to serve a prominent role in society. That means the profession needs to be better understood by clients, and better governed by regulators.
Diana Hamade is an Emirati lawyer and founder of International Advocate Legal Services in Dubai