Former Dechert London chairman Camille Abousleiman never sought to enter into politics.
But when his home country of Lebanon formed a new government Feb. 7 after nine months of deadlock, Abousleiman found himself in a novel position: Minister of Labor in the coalition government led by Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri.
“I thought after a long time in the practice of law I should put my expertise and experience at the service of my country,” Abousleiman said.
The corporate finance expert, who joined Dechert from Dewey & LeBoeuf in 2012, did have a head start. Although Abousleiman has no political affiliation, he knew that the Lebanese Forces Party—which doubled its number of lawmakers in May 2018 elections—was looking to nominate him for the role.
He did not know Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea well, having only met him in passing three years ago.
“I knew leaders from other parties better. He had heard about me and thought I could help the country,” Abousleiman said. “If we didn’t agree on principles and ideals, I wouldn’t have agreed.”
Abousleiman left Lebanon in 1981, first for an LL.M. at Harvard Law School and then to practice in New York and later London. But he’s maintained a home in the Middle Eastern country and, until joining the government, has visited on a monthly basis.
He also has a number of clients in the country who began expressing concern when rumors emerged in the Lebanese press that he was potentially taking a role in politics. They wanted to continue to have access to him for legal advice. For example, he represents Lebanese banks dealing with litigation in New York—longtime clients who did not want to see him go entirely.
Consequently, Abousleiman approached the top administrative and constitutional lawyers in Lebanon about how he could continue to have an arrangement with a foreign firm. The upshot is that he gave up his leadership role and partnership at Dechert, but remains of counsel with the firm. His team in London also remains in place, and Dechert has agreed to strict protocols to rule out the prospect of conflicts of interest.
“We’re very exited for Camille and we think that his continuing relationship with us is important,” said Dechert policy committee chair Andrew Levander. “But his team is here and we also think has has quite a job and commitment to his county and we support that entirely.”
Abousleiman also suspended his membership in the Lebanese bar.
“This thing could be temporary. You never know,” he said. “The government could be done in six months or a year.”
And the response from clients has been positive, Abousleiman added, noting that he’s received personal letters from heads of compliance at banks expressing their appreciation that he is putting his time and skills to the benefit of his country.
“They all know I’m taking a gigantic pay cut to be doing this,” he said.
Abousleiman has a set of serious challenges in front of him. While he is not the minister of finance, he will have a say in discussions about the country’s serious financial crisis. Lebanon has the third highest debt to GDP ratio in the world, and roughly 50 percent of the government’s revenues go toward debt service.
Meanwhile, the labor ministry is responsible for developing policies to decrease unemployment, supervising the social security system and handling permits for foreign workers—a pressing issue in a country that’s been heavily impacted by neighboring Syria’s ongoing humanitarian crisis. The country’s labor laws, which have been in place since 1948, also need to be modernized.
“I’m not worried about running out of work,” Abousleiman said.