London to Dubai

Growing pains and adjustments yet switching from family barrister to solicitor in an international law firm has challenged and rewarded in equal measure


I remember the first night of my arrival in Dubai, now some three years ago. I lay in bed, thinking over and over ‘what on earth have I done’?

I had only been to Dubai once before, for a weekend, and I was starting a job as a solicitor, which I had no previous experience working as, leaving behind 11 years of working as a self-employed barrister, and London, where I had lived since the age of 18.

The feeling had started when I was sitting at the airport earlier that day, all my worldly possessions in two suitcases, in the departure lounge of Heathrow – that particular mental place where suddenly life seems very real. I was going to work in an office, on the 29th floor of a beautiful office building, with views looking over the Dubai harbour and the QE2 permanently moored there. I was going to have a boss for the first time since I had worked in Oceania in Milton Keynes in 2004. I was going to manage people and work in a team, things that they simply do not train barristers to do. Also, I was not going to appear in court again for a long time, something I missed then and have done every day since. Life from now on was certainly going to be very different.

I have been working with Expatriate Law and based in Dubai for nearly three years now, and it has been a time of steep learning curves. I have had to learn the role of the solicitor, one really rather different to that of a barrister. It is, as it often is, the small things that feel odd. Discussing fees and money with clients took a long time to get used to. I had spent so long deferring those conversations to clerks or solicitors to then suddenly find oneself having to have detailed, unabashed, conversations with clients about my fees, the team’s fees, counsel’s fees took some adjusting to.

The first time I called chambers to discuss counsel’s fees was an odd experience, having been the subject of the reverse for the 11 years previous. Conferences with counsel still feel slightly strange, as I now have to spend most of my time listening rather than speaking. Ultimately that says a lot about the difference between barristers and solicitors: the former used to speaking and people listening, the latter used to listening and watching others do the talking whilst all the while taking physical and mental notes.

"It is, as it often is, the small things that feel odd. Discussing fees and money with clients took a long time to get used to. I had spent so long deferring those conversations to clerks or solicitors. One of the best parts of my job now is getting to choose what counsel to work with, having spent so long arguing with them in corridors of courts around the country... I guess the greatest compliment a barrister turned solicitor can pay to their former adversaries."

Luckily, I have the luxury of working with some of the best barristers around, who have very politely tolerated my growing pains and adjustments. One of the best parts of my job now is getting to choose what counsel to work with. Having spent so long arguing with them all in corridors of courts around the country, I now get to select who we have on our team. I guess the greatest compliment a barrister turned solicitor can pay to their former adversaries is to instruct them.

One of the other learning curves was living in Dubai, in the UAE, in the Middle East. Having not spent any real time in Dubai before moving there, I am not really sure what I thought or expected. The city is ultimately the culmination of an idea had not that long ago: to build a modern, forward thinking, cosmopolitan, business centre based in the middle of the world. Look at a picture of Dubai in the late Nineties and compare it to now; the amount it has grown in the last 20 years alone is extraordinary.

When you live here, and spend time walking around, the thing that strikes you most, more than anywhere I have ever been in the world, is that it can feel as if, just by walking round a corner, you are in a completely different country: you have the slick professionals’ habitat of the DIFC; the family-oriented, peaceful beach fronts of La Mer and Kite beach; one of the largest shopping malls in the world, sitting next to the tallest building in the world in Downtown; the Ranches, a large suburban, expatriate housing project that is probably sufficiently self-sufficient to be a small town in its own right; Al-Quoz, the cool warehouse, arty, edgy district, where galleries are based in the most unlikely places; the Marina that has the sun set on a beautiful walkway round the gentle bobbing yachts that is Monaco in feel and so much more. Dubai is in large part made up of one long road, the Sheikh Zayed Road, that is roughly 20km long; all these different districts sit either side of this long road, all entirely different in character, demographic and content.

Being based in Dubai means that a lot of our clients are also based in the Middle East, although we also continue to have clients based all over the world. Our work is split between children and divorce/financial remedies. Sadly, one common theme of international family law is child abduction; often an acrimonious starting point to marital breakdown. I have now sat with many parents, often fathers, who pretend not to cry as they describe the ghost-like house they have been left behind in, with their family’s lives scattered through each room, children’s toys still laying on the floor, uniforms of a school that the children will never attend again hanging in a wardrobe that was once opened by them every day. Dubai is not a Hague Convention country and so securing a return can often prove challenging and there is rarely good news for a left-behind parent in the Middle East.

As a firm, we continue to embrace technology and try to adopt forms of communication with clients that they use in their everyday lives, rather than requiring them to remain fixed to the old school of legal practice. This is in part necessity, as we are often in different countries from each other. It works very well though. We recently conducted a private FDR (financial dispute resolution) with the judge and counsel of both parties in London, clients in Brazil and me in Dubai; traversing the world with our attendances and able to conduct a very effective hearing to the client’s convenience. Moving to an online divorce/financial remedies scheme is going to be of great assistance to internationally based clients and practitioners, even if it is a frustrating wait for the court system to catch up with what the rest of the world was doing more than ten years ago.

Three years on from asking myself, ‘what have I done’, I think I now firmly, and happily, know the answer. Sometimes you have to do something brave and challenging to make yourself better. As I am now presented every day with law school problem-esque new enquiries that initially seem to prove to me how much more I don’t know, and then have the pleasure of progressing those cases to a sensible, fair and, hopefully, amicable conclusion even from the most acrimonious of starting points, I can say that I have found something that rewards and challenges in equal measure.

After 11 years doing family law at the Bar, it felt sometimes like I had seen it all; after nearly three years working abroad in an international firm, I realise how wrong I was to ever think that.

Byron James is a partner at Expatriate Law, based in Dubai, UAE

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Byron James

Byron James is a partner at Expatriate Law, based in Dubai, UAE