Legal eagle

Ziad Abdullah Galadari has built one of the most established and respected law firms in the Middle East. However, as he tells Tamara Walid, it has been a tough route to the top.

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By  Tamara Walid Published  November 26, 2006

|~|0N5044-01-200.jpg|~|LEADER: Galadari started his firm from scratch and it is now one of the biggest successes in the Gulf.|~|Ziad Abdullah Galadari has built one of the most established and respected law firms in the Middle East. However, as he tells Tamara Walid, it has been a tough route to the top. As much as you have experience in this practice, I’m telling you, you’re still a learner.” Nevertheless, Ziad Abdullah Galadari has surely learned more than most. As Chairman of UAE law firm Galadari & Associates, Galadari advises H.H. Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid Al Maktoum on a number of issues. He is also currently advising the government of Dubai on a US$1.4bn cross-border acquisition deal, he is a member of the Board of Directors of the World Trade Centre, a member of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators and International Bar Association, and he is Chairman of Galadari Investments. Yet despite the breadth and variety of his business interests, the 1982 Al Ain University law graduate is adamant that his true calling is to the courtroom. “Practicing law is my passion. I might have other businesses - like a building that gets me ten times the income of this law firm, but I haven’t seen it in eight months. Whereas here [at Galadari & Associates] if these is a case that will earn me Dhs10,000 I will give it my full time,” he says. Now a successful and established law firm, life at Galadari & Associates was not always so comfortable. Galadari’s first office comprised of three rooms, no secretarial support, and an empty client roster. The usual procedure of clients coming to the lawyer was reversed for the young, fresh, but inexperienced graduate. “Normally in those days as a beginner clients didn’t come to you but you had to go to them. When they came to your office it was like a party, a celebration and I would make them coffee,” he says. Galadari also remembers how back then getting clients sometimes required him to go and sit outside their offices until they agreed to give him an appointment. The market 20 years ago had not yet matured to its current level and its main purpose was to encourage local people to work as lawyers. As a result, skipping the training period after graduation wasn’t at all uncommon. Gradually the firm grew, more work was coming in, a typist was hired and then others followed. Galadari & Associates took on a variety of cases in a number of different sectors, as being specialized in one field was not an option for the then-fledgling firm. “You couldn’t survive if you were specialized. For example, if you were specialized in the capital market then how much business would come to you during the year? One or two cases. But now it’s different because there are different departments,” he says. Galadari learned quickly, propelled by a combination of determination and pragmatism, and aware that experienced lawyers would take every opportunity to take advantage of the young buck, in order to win their cases against him. Learning to be punctual in court was also a lesson learned when, once, he arrived five minutes late to his hearing. Even though the hearing went on, the chief of judges irritably dismissed the case and asked Galadari to his office after the hearing was over. Galadari recalls the judge’s words: “He told me: ‘I don’t want to ask you why you are late. A court is like a train. Whatever the reason you have to be on time. A train will not wait for you. I did not dismiss your case, but postponed it so make sure you come on time’. “He was teaching me,” Galadari says “These things you don’t see now. Nowadays the judge doesn’t have the time to do so.” The legislative system, Galadari says, has developed hand in hand with the development of the country and is still constantly modified. “Law is not like the Bible or Quran which came from God and you can’t change it; you change it according to the situations and I think we’re on the right track,” he says. His one concern, however, is that some firms may be misusing the law. He compares law to gunpowder, citing that although it was invented for peaceful purposes many people have misused it. “The same applies to the law," Galadari says, and misusing it is what earns many firms a bad reputation. Personally and professionally, Galadari has no such worries. After more than two decades of building a reputation and establishing a list of high-profile clients, Galadari & Associates is now one of the most recognized Middle Eastern law firms, not only locally but also internationally. Recently, it entered into a joint venture with Pinsent Masons under the name Masons Galadari. The partnership is specialising in construction and anything related to construction law, and Galadari & Associates is the first law firm that has such a dual undertaking with an international law firm in the Middle East, according to Galadari. Although the company currently has both local and international clients, it plans by the end of 2006 to have at least 16 lawyers, and will at least double its size in two years’ time. Whereas international law firms in the UAE are allowed to practice and obtain full licenses they still do not go to court. This has to be done through a local office and Galadari & Associates is one of the select few companies that can offer this service. It manages numerous such procedures in shipping and the litigation department. “We have many cases in court that are very high quality,” he says. On local firms in the UAE, however, Galadari thinks there is still work to be done. “Local law firms unfortunately have not developed themselves. I’m very sorry to say that but they have the chance to do it. I think they are busy with education and there are not enough local lawyers practicing. Many local law firms are too busy to be specialised in a certain area,” Galadari says. He believes local firms cannot become specialised unless they gain enough experience in a specific sector first. Galadari seems proud of his team and believes he’s hired the right people. He says that it’s important to have different relations with your team and not make them feel that it’s only about work. When Galadari calls his team for work he tries his best to convey the message and get the work done in a relaxed manner. “This is how you enjoy your life. Not everything is business. You have to joke - we are humans and not machines. We have to care about each other,” he says. Today, Galadari is no longer concerned with making coffee for his clients. With a specialized joint venture and a much bigger team, Galadari focuses on meeting clients with the team, sourcing business, and making sure work is coming in. Otherwise, his team does the job. According to Galadari, being a lawyer is not only about studying law. “Anyone can study law,” he says. “You have to take on different roles in order to be able to defend your different clients whether they are publishers, doctors, engineers, bankers or insurance agents." Practicing law, Galadari believes, is always interesting as there are new cases every day and you are always challenged to want to learn more. “The goal to expand the company to twice its current size is not at all unreasonable or exaggerated," Galadari asserts, particularly considering the growth Dubai has undergone over the last five to six years. However, Galadari believes that expanding the business has to be done very delicately, as work has to be carefully selected, and the firm must hire the right people for the job. “Money is not everything. It is a very important factor but for me, when you reach this age you will see that money is not that important. At least, not as important as it was 20 years ago,” Galadari says. Many things have changed over that 20-year period, although in all of its lifetime the company has never advertised itself to clients. Yet this too is changing for the growing practice. Galadari believes now is exactly the right time to do it - not only to get more business, but also to explain to the firm’s existing customers exactly who Galadari & Associates are. Dubai is, quite simply, not as small as it used to be. “We should’ve done it but we were getting the business anyway. We had a good reputation, but life has changed. In a way, it’s good that we haven’t done marketing because we learned from others. “There are many who have marketed their firms and businesses in a way portraying that they can do everything and when people actually go to them they get disappointed. “It is the right time to market ourselves stronger and much better than before and whatever we say we’ll do we are sure we can do and deliver,” he says. At the present, Galadari & Associates’ main clients include Dubai Government, numerous banks and insurance companies, construction companies, shipping agents and P&I Clubs, a big business community and a very small number of individual cases. “There are a variety of reasons why the firm might turn down a case," Galadari explains. “There might be a conflict of interest when someone wants to file a case or needs advice against an existing client of the firm. In addition, there are cases the company does not specialize in, such as criminal cases." On the rules and regulation in the stock market, Galadari says, “I think that Dubai is leading the capital market, and I’m not saying in the Middle East or the Gulf, I’m saying it’s one of the leading capitals like London and New York. We have not reached there yet but nothing will stop us.” Galadari sees a good management team at the DIFX with Governor Dr. Omar bin Suleiman, describing him as someone very open-minded and progressive. Galadari hopes that while his country continues to develop at a very rapid pace it will still remain inexpensive, and maintains that although accommodation and offices are much higher in price now, Dubai is still cheaper than other financial centres. “Now there’s a lot of construction going on. One day all these properties will be ready and I think the market will be stabilized. It’s a period we are going through. In your life, you have to see where there is booming and where there is recession or stability. Otherwise how will you learn about these words? If you don’t see booming you will not discover a word called booming,” he laughs. On the investment side, Galadari Investments recently announced its US$326m Palaces Hotel and Resort at Bawadi in Dubailand. Although that is the estimated cost, Galadari is convinced it will reach US$490m. The project will be developed in the style of some of the world’s grandest palaces with a theme reminiscent of a royal past. The project takes inspiration from palaces such as the Chateaux de Versailles, Buckingham Palace and the Taj Mahal. The Palaces Hotel and Resort will comprise 1000 rooms, fine dining restaurants, and lifestyle shops. Galadari’s admiration for HH Sheikh Mohammed is evident as he speaks of the Sheikh’s vision and how it has led to s uch great success. He believes the Sheikh is ahead of his time, and describes how when sitting with Sheikh Mohammed Dubai’s ruler is unbelievably quick. “When you want to explain a matter to him that would take an expert half an hour to understand, he would not need more than seven minutes,” he says. He doesn’t see the Sheikh’s vision ever ending. “I don’t think his vision will stop. He has a vision but once it is done he will have another vision so it will never stop. And we have seen that and experienced it. Look at Dubai five or six years ago and look at it now." “Ten years ago people from the region used to go on holidays, but now you don’t see them going on holidays like before. They used to go on holidays for shopping now they think ‘why should we go if we want to buy something from Milan, from all the big designers - they are all here!’ and they have many branches in Dubai. You can do your shopping here. People are coming from Europe and all over the world not only for shopping but business too,” says Galadari. Galadari seems proud of his expanding kingdom as he sits in his plush office overlooking Dubai Creek. He thinks of his latest US$326m project in Bawadi in Dubailand, of representing a German consortium on a US$364m project finance deal for the development of Design City, and his role as counsel for all international finance matters for the Dubai World Trade Centre. He smiles. Galadari has learned fast.||**||

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