Lockdown leads to shake-up at leading Egyptian law firm
What is an ‘office’ in the post-pandemic, technology-driven legal profession?
That’s a question Egypt’s oldest law firm, Shalakany, has been debating since their business – and many thousands around the world – was forced to send staff home to work remotely as the pandemic hit in 2020.
“There were some initial concerns,” says Aly El Shalakany, Senior Partner at Cairo-headquartered firm Shalakany, “concerns that when we switched off the office lights and everybody went home to work that we wouldn’t be able to continue providing the quality legal services that we have become known for over the last 110 years.
“But, it is only when faced with tough situations that innovation really happens,” he continues. “The pandemic forced everyone, regardless of age or technical ability, to embrace emerging technologies like Zoom and Teams. I’d say it took a week for our people to get used to holding client and internal meetings by video as opposed to face-to-face, but now that is commonplace and it is genuinely making our delivery of legal services faster, more efficient and more cost-effective.
It is only when faced with tough situations
that innovation really happens.
Ali El Shalakany Senior Partner
The lockdown in Egypt offered the firm a unique opportunity to look at how they conduct business and consider how that could be done in new and fresh ways. “We asked ourselves, what is an office today? What function does the office fulfil? What role does it play in how our people operate and deliver the best legal services? As a result, today our office is not just a physical space, it’s a physical and a digital space. Our people don’t need to be in a physical office anymore to be ‘in the office’”
Shalakany’s approach to delivering joined-up legal services to clients, which include many of the largest corporates investing and operating in the North Africa and Middle East regions, is very much built around collaboration, as Shalakany explains: “An important feature of our firm is that we are highly collaborative. When we package up a solution for a client it is always very client centric. We always carefully consider who in our team, across our office network, is the very best lawyer to deliver that legal product, regardless of who might have the client relationship. We have created systems to encourage and promote that collaborative approach across the firm, so first class communications is vital for us to operate to the highest level.”
Lex Mundi is more than just a referral network; we study, learn and train together, an incredible way to build close working relationships.
Close relationships with fellow Lex Mundi member firms has enabled Shalakany to sense-check various approaches to office and remote-working set-ups and to discover how other legal firms around the world are adapting their office structures and working practises to best suit their clients’ needs.
“The Lex Mundi relationship is very important to us at Shalakany,” he says. “Lex Mundi creates many different forums and events for people and firms to get to know each other. It is so much more than just a referral network, we also get to study, learn and train together, which is an incredible way to build close working relationships. When you study with someone you develop a collegiate relationship and that usually becomes a bond for life. As a result of the bonds I have built I am only ever minutes away by phone, email or Whatsapp from a colleague on the other side of the world who can provide a solution to a client I have in this part of the world. That is a compelling value proposition for us.”
Shalakany proudly recalls when that dynamic led to Shalakany being instructed by Canadian Lex Mundi member firm, Blakes, to act on behalf of agricultural firm Nutrien, which, at the time, had substantial investment interests in Egypt: “We were brought in to that deal by Blakes and we put together a strong team based here in Egypt. Because Shalakany has been around for so long we were able to instigate negotiations with the Egyptian government, which eventually led us to avoiding a dispute and entering into an amicable settlement with the government. We need to also keep in mind this was done at the very height of the pandemic. I don’t think any other team could have delivered that solution and we were very proud of that work.”
Looking to the future, how does Shalakany expect the changes to its ways of working to impact on the firm’s long-term success?
He says: “Ultimately, the most important thing for us is that our people are happy – happy people make better lawyers. We have invested in some cool things across our offices and we also have introduced hot-desking, which has changed the feel and dynamic of our offices. We have also invested in new physical spaces too. We now have two offices in Cairo, and are planning to open a third. Cairo is a huge city and it makes sense to have our physical offices closer to the homes of our people and our clients.”
Another new approach to remote working, now means that Shalakany’s staff can work from any of Shalakany’s offices – from their head office in Cairo to the picturesque setting of Gouna on the Red Sea, or even the ancient trading city of Alexandria. A change that Shalakany says has been very popular, particularly the chance to spend a week working on the shores of the Red Sea off the East coast of the country.
The firm was founded in 1912 by Shalakany’s great grandfather and will celebrate its 110th year in business late in 2022 by inviting back their alumni – lawyers who have passed through its doors and have since gone on to establish their own practices. Shalakany himself remains humble about how the current partners are today taking the firm to new levels of professionalism.
“We are always building on the efforts of others,” he says, “but we have a responsibility to the people who have gone before us to do something that is going to differentiate ourselves from our competitors. We’d like to be more global moving forward and do more business with our Lex Mundi partners. The best way to move forward is to accept that everything is a work in progress and there is always room for improvement.”