Baker & McKenzie, the world’s largest firm as measured by gross revenue, is expanding its Middle Eastern presence by combining with 40-lawyer United Arab Emirates firm Habib Al Mulla.
The tie-up—which was announced Wednesday, about five weeks after U.K. publication Legal Week first reported that the two firms had held talks about a possible combination—is scheduled to take effect on July 1. At that point Baker will have more than 30 partners and 130 associates in the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region. The firm, the largest in the world in terms of revenue, first established a Middle East presence more than three decades ago when it launched an associated office in Riyadh in 1979. Since then, Baker has also opened outposts in Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Cairo, Casablanca, Doha, and Istanbul.
Habib Al Mulla, which opened in 1984 and has offices in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, is a full-service firm that focuses on dispute resolution, corporate and commercial law, banking, real estate, and construction. Firm founder Dr. Habib Al Mulla will serve as chairman and co–managing partner of the new entity—to be known as Baker & McKenzie Habib Al Mulla—along with the managing partner of Baker’s Gulf region offices, Borys Dackiw.
Koen Vanhaerents—who chairs Baker’s Europe, Middle East, and Africa (EMEA) region—tells The Am Law Daily his firm has been interested in entering the Dubai market since opening its office in Abu Dhabi in 2009. Though the global economic crisis slowed its expansion plans in the UAE to some degree, Baker notes in its announcement of the tie-up that it is dedicated to investing in emerging markets and that Dubai has had one of the world’s fastest-growing economies in recent years.
Vanhaerents adds that Baker has worked with Al Mulla regularly in the past—though the two have never had an exclusive relationship—which made the firm an obvious candidate to combine with once Baker decided to seek a partnership. "We have been working with [Al Mulla] for quite some time. He was one of our legal correspondents—largely for litigation, especially with local advice—so, he wasn’t completely new to us," Vanhaerents says.
The new group will advise clients on local and international matters in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. (Vanhaerents says regulatory approval is pending for the new venture in Abu Dhabi, where Baker will be combining its preexisting operations with Habib Al Mulla’s.) Vanhaerents expects the expansion to benefit Baker’s current clients who already work with the firm in Abu Dhabi and will now have coverage in Dubai, while giving Habib Al Mulla’s clients greater international representation.
"[Al Mulla] works, in his practice, for many of the large players in that market—a lot of large family-owned businesses. And so far, he has been largely serving them with respect to their UAE needs," Vanhaerents says. "He didn’t have an offering for their international needs."
Legal Week notes that Habib Al Mulla’s local clients include the Dubai Real Estate Corporation and the UAE Ministry of Interiors, while international clients include HSBC, AXA Insurance, and United Technologies.
"In line with our strategy for growth, the merger creates a unique law firm offering in the UAE, with extensive local capabilities, including court representation, together with global scale," Al Mulla said in a statement. "A large number of our clients have requirements on a regional and global scale and our merger will present them with an opportunity to work with a single firm both at home and abroad."
The publication Arabian Business calls Al Mulla "perhaps the UAE’s foremost lawyer" and notes that he was among the legal architects of Financial Free Zones—designated areas in which companies are taxed lightly or not at all in order to stimulate economic activity. The concept led to the 2002 formation of the Dubai International Financial Centre, the first such free zone in the UAE.
In 2011, Habib Al Mulla hired former Clifford Chance chief of procurement Rob Morris as its CEO.
Once the tie-up is official, Baker will have 73 offices in 45 countries. The 3,800-lawyer firm topped The American Lawyer‘s most recent Am Law 100 rankings based on its financial results in 2011, when the firm had gross revenue of $2.27 billion. Last year, Baker opened offices in Casablanca and Lima, as well as a Johannesburg office that launched last May with the arrival of a 31-member team from now-defunct Dewey & LeBoeuf. The firm’s Doha and Istanbul locations opened for business in 2011.
Baker isn’t the only Am Law 100 firm to expand their Middle East operations in April, as Patton Boggs said earlier this month that it was opening a new Dubai outpost. Meanwhile, Hogan Lovells announced last fall that it was consolidating its UAE operations by shuttering its Abu Dhabi office and transferring all of its work into the firm’s Dubai location.
In other Am Law news in the Middle East, Duane Morris announced last month that it was creating a joint law venture with the Al Mashaikhi Law Firm in Muscat, Oman, according to sibling publication The Legal Intelligencer.