David Nicholson, General counsel, Nakheel.
The company behind some of the UAE’s iconic structures, Nakheel, which translates from the Arabic as "palm trees", was founded in 2003.
The company has radically changed the face of the region with its man-made Palm Islands, and developments such as The World and The Waterfront, and its continuing success is testament to the sustained investment and interest in the area.
Engaging in the development of residential, commercial and retail use buildings and units in the UAE and internationally, Nakheel also develops infrastructure and land plots for development by other companies. Retail development is another big focus, as is hotel and leisure development, and Nakheel also engages in fund management, promoting and managing infrastructure funds and real estate investment trusts for a variety of real estate assets. The company broke records this year with the highest-valued penthouse in Dubai - the penthouse in Trump International Hotel & Tower on Palm Jumeirah - which received an offer of almost US$30 million for the property in June 2008.
According to Nakheel’s general counsel David Nicholson, the current rate of construction is no flash in the pan. He sees it as sustainable: "It is not construction for its own sake". Instead, he sees it as part of an overall strategy, developing the country’s industries where it has competitive advantage, such as in tourism and financial services. This, he feels, is attracting multinational corporates and their employees to Dubai. "I think there is long-term growth in both Dubai and Abu Dhabi as prospects for employment increase according to their own strategies", he says.
Nicholson made the move in-house after private practice appointments, first at his own firm in Australia, and later with Nabarro Nathanson in London and Dubai. "It is far more professionally rewarding to be more closely involved in business and the development in business," he says, "and [the in-house experience] enables you to add more value to the company."
When it comes to outside counsel relationships, time can pose one of the biggest problems. "It is always difficult making time to meet our external counsel other than in work-related situations", he says. One solution he has found is to participate in the firm’s in-house seminars. That way, "we can get together in a semi-formal way that helps the legal teams to interact and develop the relationship."
In contrast to private practice, the biggest challenge of in-house work for Nicholson is "managing an administrative role and the employee relationship, while at the same time attending to legal work". On the flipside, he relishes the opportunity to be "involved in new and innovative projects, and developing practices and businesses to higher levels". The in-house experience also offers him and his team a chance to "achieve things that conventional wisdom would suggest could not be achieved".
Where were you previously employed?
My immediate prior position was as legal director at Emaar Properties PJSC, Dubai.
I commenced my career in Victoria, Australia, where I ran my own law firm firstly as a sole practitioner and then as a partner, before moving to London and taking a position as a solicitor with Nabarro Nathanson, in their commercial property, and banking and finance departments, and subsequently inaugural manager of their Dubai office. After taking a break from the legal profession for a spell in business, my first in-house role was as an in-house legal adviser for private trading and services businesses, before moving into the role of legal counsel with Dubai Aluminium.
How big is Nakheel’s legal department?
We have around 26 lawyers engaged in various disciplines across Nakheel’s business units, including mixed-use property development, construction, asset management, major retail malls and brands development, hotels, and leisure and funds management.
What percentage of your work is performed by in-house lawyers?
Around 75 per cent of our work is done in-house with specialist work, and major project work is outsourced as and when required.
What are the advantages of doing work in-house?
Speed and efficiency are the major drivers; with the legal team embedded within the business units they are closer to the commercial decision-makers and add more value.
What advice would you give someone moving to an in-house role from private practice?
The same high professional standards of service and integrity must be maintained and you should have a clear line of reporting.
How is life as an in-house counsel different from that of a private sector adviser?
The main difference is that you are much closer to the "client" who will be every bit as demanding as clients in private practice, and of course you will become engulfed entirely in the business of your one client. Your work will often be varied rather than perhaps doing the same kind of work over and over for a multitude of clients.
What qualities make a good in-house lawyer?
Interpersonal skills are a very big issue, especially in Dubai, as you need to have the ability to communicate easily and well with people from diverse backgrounds across the company. You need to be able to listen, draw out information and understand what they are trying to achieve and be able to offer practical solutions. You will be working more closely with your clients than in private practice and they will be often more demanding. Being able to work under stress and maintaining composure and good relations with your colleagues is also very important.
Is the role of the in-house lawyer changing (eg, becoming more specialised)?
Certainly for larger corporates there is the scope for specialisation in a particular business area, but for smaller entities the in-house counsel really becomes a general practitioner having to outsource more of the specialist areas.
What qualities make a good private practice lawyer?
I really look for prompt and efficient specialist advice and a pragmatic approach to my matters.
When will you enlist the advice of external advisers?
When we feel that external advisers will be able to perform the work better and more efficiently than it can be done in-house.
Do you see yourself hiring the firm primarily, or the individual?
We hire the firm primarily, as we will usually be looking at the resources that the firm has to offer. Having said that, we must have a good rapport with the particular individuals within the firm.
Do you have a regular external corporate firm?
We have panels of law firms, usually five, for each geographic area in which we do business, and we also have other specialist law firms that we call on as the work requires.
When dealing outside your home jurisdictions, how do you find counsel?
We have our panel firms selected as a result of a formal selection process that is reviewed from time to time.
What common behaviour from an external adviser or their firm do you find least acceptable?
While I wouldn’t say it is common behaviour I get annoyed when I see unnecessary expansion of work beyond what is needed to meet the requirements of the matter or transaction, and over-servicing by having too many fee earners allocated. Being charged for consultations between members of the law firm or for legal research is also something I have yet to come to terms with.
If you could change one thing about the "average" external adviser, what would it be?
I think it is going to become more important for law firms to be able to deliver top-quality work and advice far more competitively. I would like to see law firms adopt innovation and efficiency in the delivery of services to enable them to bring down costs.
What makes the UAE "a good place to do business"?
Certainly the way in which Dubai has embraced business and made enormous efforts to streamline public services to be as user-friendly and efficient as I have seen anywhere in the world. It is much easier to do business in Dubai than in most developed countries.