Latham & Watkins has announced it plans to halve the number of offices in its Middle East network, winding down branches in Abu Dhabi and Doha and relocating staff to Dubai.
The US firm is proposing to have exited Qatar by July and Abu Dhabi before the end of the year. All employees and partners have been offered the opportunity to move to Dubai, the firm says, and it expects to maintain an overall headcount of 35 professionals across the region in its remaining UAE branch and its outpost in Riyadh.
When the restructuring of Latham's Middle East network is complete, office managing partner for Abu Dhabi, Doha and Dubai, Villiers Terblanche, will continue to head the team from Dubai. Riyadh managing partner Salman Al-Sudairi will also retain his role and, at present, the firm has no plans to alter the composition of its offering in the Kingdom.
The west coast outfit began reviewing the practicality of its Middle East operation last autumn in view of the regional approach of clients, concluding, after consulting with clients – and presumably the relevant partners - that the relatively small distances between Dubai, Doha and Abu Dhabi meant clients based in Qatar or elsewhere in the UAE, could be equally well served from Dubai. Financial savings were not one of the drivers, London managing partner William Voge has said.
Latham launched its Middle East network in 2008, opening offices in Abu Dhabi, Doha and Dubai almost simultaneously. Two years later, it expanded further, with a spate of partner hires across the region from White & Case, previously one of the biggest US firms in the region, one of which enabled it to establish a Riyadh branch. Latham recurited the white shoe firm's Saudi partner and local sponsor, Mohammad Al-Sheikh, who has since moved on to head the country’s stock market regulator. The other hires were Terblanche, Doha partner Andrew Macklin and Abu Dhabi partners Nick Collins and Christopher Langdon, who have both now left.
On the ground in the region, White & Case has not recovered the same stature – although it maintains some of the most lucrative relationships in the Kingdom through the strength of its international operation and the experience of its partners based abroad.
Latham's trajectory in the region, meanwhile, has been largely upward, with its investment in talent seemingly paying off. As happens at all large international firms, partners have left. Al-Sheikh's departure in Saudi and Craig Stoher's in Qatar were among the more notable. But the firm has continued to make astute lateral hires, including recruiting one of the regions top banking and finance specialists, Anthony Pallett, in 2011 from Norton Rose, as it was called then, and it has promoted accomplished lawyeres to partners internally, such as Al-Sudairi and Harj Rai. Today, Latham, along with the 'magic circle' firms, has arguably one of the strongest offerings in the Middle East, especially when it comes to banking, finance and capital markets work.
Given Latham’s reputation in the Middle East and its history in the region, which predates its physical presence (the firm had represented the government of Qatar long before the Doha office was established), perhaps it can afford not to have a face in so many cities. The true test of how wise a decision the restructuring is - who stays or if anyone leaves, be they clients or partners - will become clear in time.