How to manage a Law Firm during a pandemic? Interview with Said Al Shahry

Lexis Nexis spoke with Said Al Shahry, Founder and Managing Partner of Said Al Shahry & Partners (SASLO), a full service Omani law firm to discuss the effects of the COVID-19 outbreak on the day-to-day operations of the firm, long term changes to expect in the delivery of legal services, and challenges facing Omani firms in general.

How has the COVID-19 outbreak affected your day-to-day work as managing partner of a prominent Omani law firm?

From an operational perspective, we were fortunate to have already invested heavily in our IT infrastructure. Our transition to home working was therefore smooth. We have secure remote access to all necessary files, databases, and know-how, and we work as efficiently from home as we do from the office.

From a human perspective, my duty is to ensure the wellbeing of our staff. Communication is key. We are a family first and a business second. As a firm we have solid foundations and we remain united.

Interview with Said al Shahry in The MENA Business Law Review #2/2020
What kinds of measures has SASLO put in place to help clients during this crisis?

COVID-19 approached us like a wave, visible on the horizon long before it reached our shores.

We moved quickly to assess the impact that COVID-19 would have on businesses. It was critical that we internally agreed our position on a broad range of legal questions at an early stage. Even before the outbreak had been declared a pandemic, we were able to send preliminary guidance to not only to our multinational clients but also to our local clients.

Social distancing measures were implemented in many other countries before their introduction here in Oman, and so we were able to help businesses to prepare for this. The measures in Oman have included travel restrictions, remote working requirements, and the closure of courts and ministries. We have been working collaboratively with ministries and regulators to resolve the practical problems that these measures have presented to our clients.

COVID-19, and the measures introduced by the Supreme Committee for dealing with COVID-19, have had wide ranging implications for businesses. Employment law issues have been a recurring theme. Navigating these difficult issues has demanded a holistic understanding of labour law, current court practice, trade union regulations, and many other sources related to employment law and practice. To address recurring questions, we issued a number of client alerts and organised interactive online workshops in collaboration with  our training centre. COVID-19 affects every business differently, however. We needed therefore to open and maintain dialogue with all our clients to ensure they received targeted advice that specifically addressed the particular problems they were encountering.

Many businesses now face liquidity issues. Government companies are also subject to new austerity measures that restrict their expenditure for the current financial year. Our latest initiative is to find a range of solutions that will help businesses to recalibrate and restructure in the aftermath of COVID-19. We encourage our clients to consider whether their disputes are suitable for alternative dispute resolution(ADR). SASLO has solid experience in negotiation and mediation, as we see it as a sensible, cost-effective way to keep our clients out of court and attempt reach a solution which both parties can live with as a better alternative to litigation, especially in these uncertain times.

What long-term changes do you expect to see in the delivery of legal services in the aftermath of COVID-19?

The long-term challenges and opportunities for lawyers in private practice flow from advances in technology, automation, and artificial intelligence. This is not a secret. There is no longer any value in commoditised legal services, and businesses around the world are rapidly moving to leverage technology to shrink their external legal spend. Reduced legal budgets in the aftermath of COVID-19 will only accelerate this trend.

Businesses demand bespoke practical solutions to the legal issues they face. In Oman, these solutions can only be found by analysing our legal and regulatory framework through the prism of our customs, culture, and ethos. Sector expertise, and relationships with ministries and regulators, are also key. This is the “value add” that businesses seek. My personal belief is that no "off-the-shelf" advice can replace deep roots and knowing first-hand the market dynamics.

What would you say differentiates SASLO from other law firms of a similar size in Oman?

We remain the only top-tier legal practice in Oman that is fully owned and managed by Omanis.  We are approaching our 28thanniversary and we were one of the very first law firms to set up a full-service practice in Oman.

Our Omani roots have been crucial to our success. Oman’s legal system is a product of locally strong religious influence combined with French and British legal traditions. To understand our legal system, and to apply that knowledge, you need to first understand how our courts, ministries, regulators, and other stakeholders operate. You cannot develop this understanding from a book. Our firm has unrivalled access to the court system though our market leading disputes team, and we understand the practices of government, ministries and regulators through our connections and dealings. We are deeply embedded in Omani society.

We have always played an active role in shaping Oman’s legal and regulatory framework. I led the SASLO team as expert adviser when we were invited to participate in the drafting on the Tender Law and its internal regulations and the Electronic Transactions Law. We have influenced the substance and drafting of many other laws and regulations, through our voice in consultations.

We have for many years played a key part in developing new transaction structures in Oman ,and have been involved in many groundbreaking developments. As long ago as1993, for example, we advised on the Manah IPP, which was Oman's first Independent Power Project. Moving forward almost 30 years, we are now at the forefront in designing structures under the new PPP law that came into force earlier this year.

Nevertheless, local knowledge alone is not enough. We rely heavily on our team of very senior international lawyers to structure and negotiate transactions, and to deliver advice, in accordance with best international practice. The expertise of our international lawyers is particularly important where there is no precedent in Oman and we need to look to overseas structures for guidance. It is this symbiotic relationship between our local and international lawyers that distinguishes us from our competitors and allows us to deliver practical and optimal solutions.

We are not part of any global legal network or franchise, and our independence opens doors to the entire global international legal community. We have a longstanding collaborative relationship with a number of top rated global law firms. This is also a key competitive advantage for us.

What are the biggest challenges facing local law firms of your size in Oman?

Oman is regrettably facing a significant economic downturn in 2020. We have been confronted by two adversaries at the same time -  COVID-19 and the oil price crash. Coping with this dual shock puts an enormous pressure on the Oman’s economy.

This naturally presents a challenge to the legal community here. Multi-disciplinary firms  such as SASLO will be better equipped to insulate themselves from the downturn. We expect reduced activity in practice areas such as government-owned projects, capital markets, real estate, and conventional M&A. This means our focus will move to PPP projects, restructurings, litigation, privatisations, and distressed M&A. We also expect that our guidance will be needed in relation to Oman’s new bankruptcy laws, which come into force in July 2020.

What are some of the firm’s innovations over the past years that have benefited clients?

We are proud to have established the SASLO Legal Training Centre. Since its establishment in 2009, SLTC has trained over 8,000 persons from the private sector, public sector and professionals. SLTC is associated with SASLO, but operates as an independent legal entity. Our goal is to develop the next generation of Omani lawyers but also  to develop a better understanding and awareness amongst them about law and the rule of law. It is our way of giving back to the Omani community. It continues to be the only legal training institute in the Sultanate and a pioneer in the region.

We were among the first law firms in Oman to introduce the concept of structured training programmes. We open doors to trainee lawyers providing them with structured training in various areas of law.  Some of our alumni have gone on to open their own law firms, many of them work for international firms in Oman, and some are even judges. We run courses for in-house lawyers, and regularly conduct training sessions for our clients. In order to maintain continuity of this service during COVID-19, SLTC is currently operating an online service in the form of webinars on topics of interest to our clients.

Published in The MENA Business Law Review #2/2020 (June 2020)