Al Tamimi & Company has grown rapidly, and today, with over 330 lawyers and a similar number of support staff, it is the largest law firm in the Middle East, having offices in the UAE in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Ras Al Khaimah and Sharjah. The firm also has offices in Bahrain (Manama), Egypt (Cairo), Iraq (Baghdad and Erbil), Jordan (Amman), Kuwait, Oman (Muscat), Qatar (Doha) and Saudi Arabia (Jeddah and Riyadh) This takes the firms total to 16 offices in nine countries spanning the region.
Essam has over 28 years experience in litigation and dispute resolution in the UAE and other GCC countries and is one of the region’s most respected litigators.
He is also the Founder of Al Tamimi Investments. He continues to play an active role by being involved in early stages of investments, building on established relationships as well as actively participating in CSR initiatives of the Al Tamimi Investments group. Essam gained his undergraduate degree in the UAE before attending Harvard Law School in the USA; bringing with him experience in all manner of business entrepreneurship.
Essam has acted as counsel and sat as arbitrator at a number of disputes regionally and internationally. He is currently on the ICC Court, Chairman of the ICC Arbitration Committee, and the president of the Arab Users’ Council of the LCIA. He is actively involved in the development of arbitration laws in the region and for the training and development of arbitration in the UAE and the region. His practice focuses primarily on local and international clients in shipping, banking, intellectual property, construction and commercial litigation. Essam has published a number of articles and books on litigation and arbitration in the UAE and setting up business in the region. He has received the Gulf Legal Lifetime Achievement Award for outstanding contribution to the Gulf Legal Market.
We want to take our readers to the very beginning, how you started from school, going to Al Ain University and of course going to Harvard. Take me to the very beginning; what made you choose law specifically?
I have no idea! Being a lawyer didn’t cross my mind. I had little understanding and knowledge of the law and if I go back and really think about it, I was probably influenced by a movie or by some book. Once I was travelling and I picked up a book about Abraham Lincoln. I didn’t know he was a lawyer – perhaps this inspired me? If you look at me and my colleagues in this community we are the first generation of lawyers. It’s not like our father or grandfathers were lawyers.
But it has been a very interesting journey. I had a very basic high school education, minimum education in terms of history, mathematics and so on. I was not one of the best students, out of 43 students in the classroom; my grades were placed at number 40. I just barely made it through each year, but again that was the culture. However at Al Ain University, it was a totally different story and that’s where I connected with law. In the four years I was there, I got straight A’s. I liked the subjects and am now living it and this has been my profession and my enjoyment for the last 31 years.
Tell me about the transition to Harvard University. Tell me about your experience.?
Harvard was a totally different experience. I was the number one student at Al Ain University and was honored by Sheikh Zayed for being the number one student in class on graduation. I still display the trophy he awarded me in my office today. But going to Harvard was a totally different ball game. The way of teaching was totally different, the law was common law, the language was challenging. I arrived there thinking too highly of myself - thinking I was number one in the class and I was going to eat them all alive at Harvard University. I had a total setback and was quite depressed for 3 months, because it was just totally different.
But it was a lesson for me and one that I communicate to all graduates coming from law school in the UAE into law schools around the world. I arrived at Harvard with the impression that I had it all, that I had learnt everything. I became the commander of law. Yet at Harvard, the teaching method was totally different.
What they taught us there is that there is nothing called a command, everything is subject to change and everything is subject to interpretation, so there is nothing actually fixed. As a coin with two sides to it, so was the law. However when I came out from law school here in the UAE, I only knew one side of the coin - the other side didn’t exist in my world. That was a big shock to me but reflecting on this, it is one reason for me having been so successful.
What were some of the key challenges that you faced? I mean growing the business to where it is right now?
Opening regional offices and trying to market and manage things remotely has been challenging. But with the challenges came new ideas and it became apparent that we had to change our approach moving forward. We hired good people to manage the firm. As I mentioned to you before, the book I read from Abraham, said “I work slow but I never take a step backwards” so we had times in our offices where we worked very slowly but we also never took a step back and we continue to work, we continue to move forward. Another big challenge for me on a personal and professional level is the need to bring in partners to a business that you’ve started and that you own.
You have to let go and this skill of letting go is an art, you either have it or not. I never thought I had it. It’s just through training and through seeing the benefit of having a partnership that I was able to let go a lot of the firm and there is no way I could have grown the firm to where we are today on my own. And it is only due to the help of my partners, our team and to those who joined me 25 years ago that we are what we are today. And that is what is important – important for the firm and especially important for our clients.
I know international expansion is definitely in your plans, you’ve got quite an aggressive international expansion plan. Tell me about where are you going?
It’s a story of two falls and we need to be very careful about it because once you expand you stretch yourself thin and our model is not just about having a name plate on the door. The service we offer clients has to be consistent across offices and across practices. Our vision, is to be in every single Arabic speaking country. However our focus for the next year or so is consolidation and ensuring the offices we’ve recently established are settled and doing well. With the unrest in the region, we will revisit our expansion plans when the time is right and hope we can be involved in contributing to the re-building of the economies that have been affected by the Arab Spring.
I know corporate responsibility and charity and giving back is such a huge topic and it’s something that you are very passionate about. Tell me about some of the activities you are doing in terms of giving back to the community.?
We have an active trainee program at Al Tamimi and at any one time, can have a number of lawyers from around the world working with us as part of this program. We also have a very active pro-bono team led by one of our partners with the objective to provide pro-bono services to the community where we have a presence – primarily for people who cannot afford legal services. We also work with a number of charitable organizations by either providing legal services pro-bono or by coordinating charitable activities with them. It’s important to me personally and to the firm and underlies what we are about.
Through your private company, Al Tamimi Investments, you also have a program called the Big Start? Do you want to tell me a little bit about that?
This is an initiative that I took on at a personal level. It’s a beautiful project. I Amongst the student population in the UAE, I have seen so much talent, motivation and energy and the Big Start gives applicants the opportunity to take their ideas further. We work with most of the universities in the UAE and identify a few students who we educate on areas like how to develop a business plan or how they can budget, strategize, build up financial backing and then we offer them the opportunity to present a business idea to us. We have had over 100 applications which are then cut down to 40, 10 and then the last four are closely reviewed by a committee with the winner having the opportunity to execute the idea with my financial support.
Dubai has played such an important role in your personal success and in general. Tell me about your love for the city?
Dubai has proved me and many others wrong because it’s growing faster than any of us could have imagined. Dubai has been a wonderful success story which would be hard for any other city to achieve. The DIFC is a good example. It is very unique. Many countries have tried to develop similar projects to the DIFC, but they did not have the courage or the tools to implement their plans. The DIFC Court speaks foreign languages, applies foreign law as well as local law, and is now globally recognized. Dubai has had the ability to attract top talent because of what it offers beyond the professional opportunities. We have excellent education facilities, good healthcare and it’s a safe place to live. I am very proud to be a part of it.
Every leader has had to sacrifice something. Tell us what are the sacrifices you had to make along the way?
I have had to give up a lot of hobbies, as I have been very busy with work but at the same time I have not compromised on my children and family. I attend many of their school activities and just love being with them. I try not to compromise my weekends; it will be a very rare occasion where I will actually have to work on the weekends.
Your Definition of Success?
In my opinion, it is to be very creative and to be able to provide a client with solutions. Clients are not interested in knowing about Article 5 or Article 10 - that doesn’t matter to them. They come to us looking for legal solutions that are simple. Providing clients with a solution and being creative is the heart of me and my profession.