Since 2011 Alastair has been a partner at Dentons. He led the construction team in the UK, and since mid-2016 he has led the Dentons Middle East dispute resolution and construction teams in Dubai. Prior to joining Dentons Alastair was a partner at HBJ Gateley Wareing, and before that he was a member of the Independent Bar for 12 years where he specialised in construction law. Before 1995 Alastair was an officer in the British Army.
What inspired you to pursue a legal career?
At the time that I was leaving the Army, a number of my friends were lawyers and a couple were barristers. Having talked to them, and watched them in court, it looked like a very interesting career. I also really liked the idea of being self-employed and doing something different on most days. On the basis of this and the fact that I didn’t have a burning desire to do anything different, I started my studies for the Bar in 1995.
What motivated you to specialise in construction?
When I started at the Independent Bar I did a large amount of legally aided criminal work. It was a lot of fun, the people I worked with were varied and it provided a challenge every day. However, it became clear to me that it was going to become increasingly difficult to make a living doing this because the government was determined to cut the legal aid budget, as ultimately they did. At about the same time I had been lucky enough to be instructed on a couple of construction cases. I found them interesting, and they provided the opportunity for regular court-based work. I also thought that the clients were pretty straightforward and straight-talking, which is always an advantage. From there my construction practice grew.
Why did you decide to relocate to Dubai?
I had been working in the GCC on and off since 2005. In 2016 my predecessor, Michael Kerr, decided that he wanted to retire. Michael was a construction litigator who I knew very well and had an enormous amount of respect for. He told me that he was leaving and it was obvious to me that the business needed somebody to replace him. By autumn 2016 I was working in Dubai almost full-time and by January 2017 I was based here.
How did you go about establishing yourself as a leading practitioner in the Dubai legal market?
I have always made it a policy to surround myself with people who are brighter and more talented than I am, and I have been very fortunate to be able to do that with the construction and dispute resolution teams in Dubai. Having a fantastic team of people who all work together makes it very easy to sell the services we have at Dentons. When I arrived I made it my business to meet as many potential clients and contacts as I possibly could and the practice developed from there. I would love to say I had a plan but I think there was a large slice of good fortune involved.
How have recent changes to the UAE’s arbitration law affected your practice?
It is obvious that the new Arbitration Law, which was issued in June 2018, is a very significant step in the right direction for dispute resolution in the UAE. What is already clear is that the enforcement of arbitral awards is much quicker and more straightforward. This makes the UAE a much more attractive place to conduct arbitration. Consequently, clients and parties have much greater confidence in the process in the UAE, and they are much more likely to bring work here.
Sources have noted that a few firms have left the Middle Eastern region recently. What, in your opinion, is prompting this change?
There a number of challenges facing the region at the moment and this has led to a reduction in workflow in certain sectors and practice groups, which has no doubt had an impact upon the appetite of some firms to commit and remain committed to the region. Some firms have left altogether while others have retreated to a hub model based in Dubai. I am pleased to say that Dentons has been in the UAE for over 50 years (51 years in Abu Dhabi and 50 years in Dubai), and we do not anticipate any major changes going forward.
How do you see your practice developing over the next five years?
We are involved in a number of very significant projects and I anticipate these continuing for the next two or three years with new ones coming online. In terms of dispute resolution, I think one area which will really develop in the next two or three years is the investigatory and regulatory practice. To that end, Dentons has committed to this specialisation by moving our general counsel, Andrew Cheung, to Dubai.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
I remember when I started out at the Bar, someone said that there is no substitute for “iron-willed determination”. In the absence of anything else, I think that does get you through most challenges.