How it is to work as a lawyer in Abu Dhabi after graduating from India as a lawyer? Mahima, a legal consultant in Abu Dhabi, UAE, shares her first hand experience.
Having graduated from Jindal Global Law School earlier this year, it was time for me to work over my career options that although seemed arduous in the start, eventually led me to working with a local firm based in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Since I had studied the five year integrated BA/LLB course in India it was a challenge in the beginning to cope with a new jurisdiction within the first year of my professional experience. However, it has been a lucrative and fruitful experience to the extent of building a momentum whereas it comes to my growth in the legal profession. One of the fundamental questions I’ve persistently been asked by my peers and fellow graduates from India is this: what are the differences I face in my working as a lawyer in Abu Dhabi as compared to India. This blog attempts to highlight five fundamental differences, which I hope will assist every Indian lawyer attempting to pursue their legal career within the United Arab Emirates.
Civil Law vs. Common Law
One of the main differences between the two jurisdictions is that while India has remained a common law system, highly attributable to strong legal developments from the colonial times, UAE follows a civil law system.
In India, higher court judgments bind the lower courts to act in light of their judgments since they form precedence and as Indian lawyers, every case we work on requires our in depth knowledge of the case history to understand and trace the law within such judgments.
This is not the case in UAE since higher court judgments only serve as a referential guide and is not binding on the lower courts. They are merely looked upon to clarify the position of the law but not as binding precedents.
There are advantages and disadvantages to both the systems because as an Indian lawyer if I am to advise my client on a certain issue or matter which we hold contentious we are somewhat certain of the route the Indian courts will take in dispensing that judgment, whereas in UAE when we advise our clients we like to create a more ambiguous picture since no previous judgment remains binding and cases are largely assessed on a case to case basis which somewhat makes things slightly uncertain when trying to assess what route the courts in UAE will adopt. The disadvantage for the former common law Indian system is that when conducting research, our primary focus lies in using the law and researching through all the judgments passed on that matter which implies sitting behind books and spending hours trying to understand what the higher courts may have ruled over a particular issue. This is an advantage in UAE since our focus remains on researching the law, but primarily using legal strategy to advance a strong case for our client and that requires a strong legal acumen and understanding of the operation of laws and their application.
Working with International lawyers on a level playing field
UAE does not restrict the entry of foreign law firms and some of the best international law firms have their offices based in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi as well as Dubai such as Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance, Latham & Witkins, White & Case etc. For any law graduate who interns in their offices here, they become well exposed to the workings of such firms and have an added advantage when applying for their training contracts. For professionals working in Abu Dhabi, one is constantly in interaction with these firms and as a first year professional here, this has been one of the very rewarding experiences. You get to udnerstand understand what sets the benchmark of these law firms higher than the rest, which in turn enhances your own personal growth in the legal field.
In addition, some of the international law firms have even undertaken mergers with local firms such as Baker & McKenzie with Habib Al Mulla. In India, the laws and judgments such as the 2009 Bombay High Court and the earlier Madras High Court verdict have rendered it impossible to open foreign law firms in India. Practically however, there had been a strong practice of maintaining friendly relations with foreign law firms. Still, there is no scope of a direct presence of foreign law firms in India. On a policy forefront this has been widely debated this year and bodies such as the Society of Indian Law Firms who earlier maintained a rigid stance on not opening the Indian market to foreign law firms are now proposing a phased sequential approach to allow entry of foreign consultants and foreign law firms in India. It seems India will still take a while to allow entry of foreign law firms.
Practicing litigation is not much of an option in UAE for foreign lawyers
One of the major setbacks in UAE as an Indian graduate is that, other than the free zone areas such as Dubai International Financial Centre, which have their own set of laws, litigation may not be a very feasible career option to pursue here for Indians or other foreign lawyers. To plead cases before the UAE courts, one is required to not just be well versed with Arabic (which is the official language of the courts) but as is the most common criterion, also be a UAE or GCC national. Foreign consultants and foreign lawyers are usually never allowed to plead cases before the courts and while there maybe different practical methods adopted, it is still a restrictive legal career option in UAE.
Compared to this, a large number of corporate lawyers in India transition into litigation or arbitration, and if they don’t it remains an option one can consider anytime.
There is a lot more to do in legislation and policy expansion space
Since the constitution of UAE was adopted in 1971, one of the biggest advantages for an Indian law graduate who has been exposed to laws dated back to colonial times is using that knowledge and developing additional legal skills when working on policy matters and development of laws here in the UAE. As a lawyer one becomes an active participant in the formulation of new laws and amendments since in comparison to India, there is huge potential for legal developments in UAE. This is highly advantageous because it helps identify legal issues, lacunas, strengthen legal research skills as well as in understanding the entire mechanism and workings of new laws. It also exposes you to understand the impact of culture in developing a law that is predominant in UAE since Sharia is considered one of the primary sources of law.
Size of big law firms is different in UAE
The size of the big and leading law firms in UAE being approximately 90-100 lawyers while in India the big law firms are approximately 500-600 lawyers. I found law firms in UAE to be smaller in size to than that of an equally placed firm in India. This could be attributed to the demographic difference whereby India ranks much higher than UAE. However smaller sizes can be beneficial for beginners like me. Since the law firms in UAE are smaller in size, as a lawyer you witness no hierarchy because when working on projects and legal matters you work as a single team with the senior associates. This becomes particularly important when developing one’s legal skills since it enables you to derive a lot of knowledge from the direct interaction and collaboration with your seniors and so far as a personal experience this is something I have witnessed first hand.