Is Life as a Lawyer In the Arab States All It's Cracked Up to Be?

Posted on 20/9/2016 by Katherine Memery

The Arab States have emerged as a magnet for international talent. Prosperous cities have sprung up in the place of sand-swept desert and The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Qatar have surged in popularity. Population across the region has quadrupled in the last 25 years.

For those looking to move to more exotic climes, the Middle East can be financially lucrative. Eye-watering salaries and no personal taxation often lead to expatriates who are prepared to uproot themselves receiving higher disposable incomes than they might command back home. Commutes also tend to be shorter compared to London. These factors, coupled with the warm climate and relaxed way of life, have captured the imaginations of thousands of Brits.

Large corporations across all business sectors have recognised the economic importance of the region and have set up headquarters in global centres like Doha and Dubai. These cities, with their futuristic skyscrapers and immense affluence, have grown to become internationally competitive, commercial centres enticing individuals from all professional backgrounds, including lawyers.

Sadly, the promise of luxury and wealth that has drawn so many to the Middle East is usually not as lavish as expected. Throughout the world, stereotypically, lawyers are seen as money-mad, stressed-out workaholics. In some Arab States, where there is a significant emphasis on wealth and financial success, these traits can be exaggerated; individuals can become slaves to the opulent lifestyle and consumer culture that characterises the region.

Earlier this year, one talented yet dissatisfied lawyer reached her limit. Kristen Jarvis Johnson quit her high-flying associate role at the Qatar offices of international law firm Squire Patton Boggs. She had worked for the firm for 9 years, specialising in international arbitration and had been based in Qatar’s capital Doha for the last two years.

After leaving her £270,000 a year job in April 2016, she wrote a tell-all post on social media site Reddit about her time at Squire Patton Boggs. Within it, she voiced her personal disdain at the lawyers she worked with “who would give anything and everything to make millions”.

She criticised the long hours and, what she considered to be, the unsustainable working culture at the firm, revealing how she often clocked-up more than 300 hours a month. She alleged that while she continually met or exceeded targets she was told that she didn’t need a bonus and was encouraged to work even harder. There was also a significant human cost; due to her excessive workload, Kristen explained how she missed her grandmother’s funeral and rarely saw her young sons.

Kristen cited ‘blatant gender discrimination and sexual harassment’ as the primary reasons for her departure. She has since spoken about the gender imbalance she believes she witnessed in the firm’s Doha offices. She described how she felt she was often overlooked when it came to promotion and bonuses and how business was almost exclusively conducted by men. Johnson also commented on the striking rich-poor divide amongst Qatari residents.

After Johnson’s post went viral, a spokesperson from Squire Patton Boggs responded, fervently denying the allegations:

“We were disappointed to see the comments made by Ms. Johnson and strongly disagree with these comments, particularly with her assessment of the firm’s policies toward women. We are committed to a firm culture that promotes full and equal participation, advancement and retention of women.”

Kristen has since made the move back to her native United States where she has set up a business with her sister making boy Action Dolls. She says the move gave her the “opportunity to regain the things she valued in life and continue to pursue a successful career on (her) own terms”.

Indeed, as strong as Johnson’s allegations are, it is important to note that this is one individual’s personal experience. It is far from typical of the experiences of other Squire Patton Boggs employees or other British expatriate lawyers in the Middle East. It does, however, raise an important point about acute cultural differences.

While Kristen Johnson’s story may be unusual, there are striking cultural distinctions that can make living in the Arab States difficult for British expatriates. While the U.A.E and Qatar are undoubtedly at the forefront of development and innovation, the strictly held religious and social views can lead to personal unease. Traditionally, business management roles have, for example, been held by male employees. Things are gradually changing, however, with more women than ever holding senior positions and growing numbers of women moving to the region in the hope of progressing their careers.

Furthermore, as Johnson pointed out, the imbalance between the wealthy and the poor cannot easily be ignored. Whilst there is an emphasis on material possessions and financial success in the region, there are also hundreds of thousands of low-paid immigrant workers notably from India the Philippines and other far less prosperous countries. The treatment of these individuals by the rich, along with the stark contrast between their lifestyle and those of the wealthier sections of society, including Western expatriates, can be uncomfortable to experience.

Working abroad gives lawyers the opportunity to experience a new culture and work within a range of business settings in different jurisdictions. From a personal perspective, it’s likely to be an enriching experience and an enjoyable way of enhancing your skills.

Before considering making the move to the Middle East, or elsewhere, it’s essential that you do your homework and visit first. With their desert landscape and dynamic growth, Dubai and Doha are unique places but perhaps, not suited to everyone. Spend some time there first, learn as much about the firm and the team you will be joining to make sure the fit is right for you, your family and your career.

If you're looking for a new opportunity closer to home, The consultants at Realm recruit for legal roles across the North West, Midlands and Yorkshire. Have a look at our jobs page to view our latest vacancies.

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