Accessibility Links

Should in-house counsel in the Middle East be bilingual?

Posted by: Laurence Simons 28/07/15

The obvious response would be – yes! In reality, however, the value add of lawyers needing to speak and understand Arabic is slightly more ambiguous.  Working in the Middle East on a day-to-day basis we regularly assist clients with their first time legal hire in the region.  One of the most common questions they have is “do I need a lawyer that speaks fluent Arabic?”

The past twelve months have seen a number of regional counsel appointments with Arabic speakers.  We do, however, often ask clients whether this skill set is really needed. Naturally, having a larger legal team with at least one Arabic speaker adds a huge amount of value to the business. Candidates that also speak French are advantageous as they can manage matters arising from Maghreb and overseas French territories.

The most common trend that we see is a first time hire fluent in Arabic followed by two or three further appointments of UK or US qualified lawyers. Alternatively, teams can be headed by a non-Arabic speaking lawyer followed by a junior lawyer who is Arabic speaking and manages all of the litigation and local law matters for the company.  This is commonplace within the FMCG and Pharmaceuticals sectors and also within some large Middle Eastern conglomerates.

So, is a lawyer with Arabic language speaking a necessity?

Generally, most of the work undertaken by multinational corporations (MNCs) and large conglomerates is done in English so understanding Arabic to some extent isn’t a requirement. Any niche work that requires an Arabic speaker, such as litigation or local regulatory work can be outsourced to a local company.

For the most part, non-Arabic speakers from outside the Middle East have been educated in a system that hiring managers are more familiar with. Perhaps this gives a certain level of comfort and makes it easier for them to understand what to expect when hiring a non-Arabic speaker or Western educated lawyer.

When hiring in the Middle East, it is prudent to look at both Arabic and non-Arabic speaking lawyers as this can attract lawyers from a wider circle.  Essentially this also means that a company can make sure that the technical and cultural fit is there.

However, understanding Arabic can prove to be invaluable.

Whilst we have outlined reasons for not specifying Arabic as a compulsory requirement, there are a plethora of reasons for a company to hire an Arabic speaking lawyer.  Lawyers working in-house are not simply lawyers, they are business partners.  Often called upon to provide invaluable strategic input into a business, Arabic speakers can utilise their cultural understanding and language skills to drive business forward in the region.  Their ability to quickly assimilate local law issues and translate means that they can resolve business critical issues in a timely manner. Having an Arabic speaker during negotiations can sometimes either break the ice or develop relationships. Due diligence to determine the need for a regional counsel in the Middle East or a further hire into a team can often take months and budget approvals can be difficult to obtain.  This is where a long term tie with the region can make an Arabic speaker even more of an appealing option.  With an increasing number of clients expanding manufacturing and operations into the Middle East, it is now becoming more important to have Arabic speaking lawyers in your business.

In conclusion, there are pros and cons to having a lawyer that reads, speaks and writes Arabic.  Whilst a proven track record in the region does to some extent negate the need for a lawyer to be bilingual, there is no doubt that having this asset can bring competitive advantage and progress to your legal department quicker.  The necessity of this skill set depends on a number of variables: the size of the company, whether it is a multinational or a local company, the sector which they operate, their growth plans and size of the team. Ultimately there is one thing that should always trump language ability, wherever we are in the world, and that is being a good lawyer. Fortunately, this region now has an exceptional talent pool both without and without Arabic language ability. This gives our clients the wealth of choice they need to make the right hire.