Nermine Tahoun is the Managing Partner of Tahoun Law Office. Her extensive experience in the Egyptian legal sector spans work as a private practice lawyer, leading an advisory team within the Egyptian government to draft and implement PPP law, and growing Tahoun Law Office to become one of the country’s leading law firms. She talks to Law Today about how lessons learned throughout her career have impacted her professional development.
What do you feel have been the highlights of your career to date?
Working as the legal advisor to the Egyptian Minister of Finance is one. I was very young at that time: 28 or 29 years old. I participated in building a project for the government – issuing a new law, which was based on a new concept. It was a very difficult thing to do. To be the head of a legal team, to work in coordination with a team of legal advisers, many of whom were older than me, was a big challenge. I came from a corporate legal background and I represented the private sector point of view. Just to inform and convince them of this perspective, to create something that would be useful for the government, was a very big task.
My strategy was to help the government’s legal advisors to understand that there were real benefits to working with the private sector. It was my job to show them that it was not a problem to give the private sector the things they asked for in terms of information or permits. They were so used to thinking that always having more restrictions would help the government; they didn’t see that this would often prevent a project from taking place. So my job was to help them understand the market point of view – the financing, the banks, what was needed in order to finance long term projects (ones that would run for a minimum of 15 years). This was a very new concept for the government.
To make the new model more successful than the BOT (Build, Operate, Transfer) took a lot of work. The PPP (Public-Private Partnership) was a more advanced model for project finance. However, it also required the government to accept concepts that were quite new. Helping them to understand the market and its financial nuances was a challenging task, especially working inside the government.
How did you get that opportunity?
It happened by luck. I was initially working in Shalakany and I moved to DLA Piper before it became Matouk Bassiouny. During my work in both law firms, the Ministry of Finance used me to handle their files there. So I was working closely with them and it seems that they liked me, as they insisted on having me work with them full-time.
Other things I can see as highlights in my career….Honestly in the first three to five years of your business career if you are not focusing, if you are not giving all your time and effort to enhance your capabilities and understand more about the market, to enrich your education, you will not get where you want to be.
I was given wonderful advice from one professor – and actually he wasn’t giving this to me, but to a male colleague. He said you should put all your effort in the first three to five years. I considered this advice and…here we are.
When I was a student, Egypt provided a much better college education than it does now, but still most of the valuable market knowledge and skills did not come through a college education even then. In order to get the know-how, to understand how to deal with clients, how to negotiate a contract, how to stand before a judge and defend your client, how to draft a memo, you have to see experienced people doing these things. You have to learn and you have to keep silent learning, for a while. This is what I did in the beginning; I was very eager to learn and to try and try and try, until I did it the best. I had examples in my sight every day. I saw lawyers from all over the world, and set my sights even when I was in a very junior role on being a Senior Partner in a firm one day.
What are the factors that you believe have helped you achieve your success?
Eagerness is key, discipline to your work, responsibility. The client needs a lawyer he can depend on. He needs to be able to rely on your ideas; whenever he needs you, he should be able to find you giving appropriate advice. Even if the client doesn’t necessarily listen to what you say immediately, if you did your homework and gave advice using the right motivation, he will believe that you were the right track to take. Your credibility is very important. Each and every entity I have dealt with, I have only ever given credible advice to – regardless of whether this would result in me doing business with them or not.
This has been a recurrent theme in the interviews we have been conducting. It’s clear that the business sector really values the relationship of trust with lawyers who have credibility.
Yes. Unfortunately this is a problem in the market. There are a lot of lawyers in Egypt who like to use every opportunity to take money, giving the client the wrong advice to keep their case in the courts, even when they know they will lose the case and waste time and money. They should have vision. Business people often don’t understand the legalities they are dealing with. If as a lawyer you are not credible and not thinking about the long term relationship with your client, you are sabotaging yourself. This is not my style at all; that’s why you see me here today. I don’t care about the money now. Even if I lose money in the short term, at the end of the day I am gaining my name – which benefits me much more in the end.
You are a young female managing partner in a profession largely dominated by men. What advice would you give to young Egyptian women wishing to succeed in this field?
Insist. Believe in yourself and in what you are doing. Keep working, because your work is the only reward you will have and nobody can take this away from you. You will have fights; I was attacked a lot in the beginning and, believe it or not, mainly by women. I had a very unlikely start because I didn’t have anyone in the field helping me. I was young and alone, but I insisted. I had an image in my mind and every time I saw a successful lawyer, I would tell myself that in no more than one year I would be better than him.
Since secondary school I knew that I wanted to be an international lawyer. I felt that this was a profession I could be productive in. I am not very fond of litigation, but I enjoy building projects. That’s why I am in the PPP and project finance sector; I enjoy incorporating companies and facilitating new models of business. This is something I would love to see in my country; rather than desert, I would love to see greenery and factories everywhere, and I want to be part of it.
Could you describe the evolution of the Tahoun Law Firm since it was founded? How do you see the Firm evolving in the future?
My father was a General and when he got his pension he established a law firm for criminal cases. When he passed away I was still in the field of corporate law, so the Firm was closed for a while and then I re-established it. I restructured the whole idea of Tahoun Law Firm to provide corporate legal services.
We did this in 2010 and the market was booming – I had plenty of clients. Actually the people who really supported me to open the Firm were businesspeople. I secured four or five clients on a permanent retainer basis, so I was encouraged to start. Now we have 17 lawyers in the Firm so the growth has been rapid.
How do you see the Firm evolving in the future?
I am thinking of building a structure for our senior lawyers to be partners. I deal with management in a very democratic way to ensure that my staff participate fully. It enhances their work to know all the rules of how the company functions and giving them percentages in the Firm incentivizes them. I want to create a culture of ownership, not to remain a one-man show. I have another new project in mind but am currently researching to see how that could work.
In this country you can be helpful or an obstacle. I think about things from a positive perspective. Let’s be frank, we have a very bad education system – often our education and certificates do not match international standards. I’m thinking about having international accreditation for specific sectors to help them fit into the market. We have a catastrophe in the nursing sector and when it comes to information technology. We don’t have the appropriate calibre of professionals in mechanics, the legal or paralegal professions. There are a lot of sectors that are badly needed in the market, for which we really don’t have appropriate education.
What do you see as being the major challenges to managing a law firm in Egypt?
There are so many! If was in any other country I would have been in a much better situation. I have always had to put in double the effort to make my business fly. Sometimes the challenges come from peers, who feel threatened by a successful woman. Throughout my career, people would fight with me and act as though, because I’m a woman, I shouldn’t have reached the level I did. Even when I opened this law firm, there were some people from within the industry who tried to attack me, or tried to steal lawyers and clients who were working with me.
The government also does not provide help in terms of starting your own organisation.
I usually don’t listen to people who challenge me or threaten me. What I care about is what I will do tomorrow and I get frustrated if don’t do something new every day. And I want to build something for others to gain from. I am always very happy when I see law students or associates who end up being stars in the market because of the time they spent with me. I feel that this enriched them so much in a year or two that it’s as though I started to have graduates, because I am deeply committed to anyone coming from this law firm having a rich skill set – in terms of drafting, negotiating, handling files. I don’t like to see my people having less than what is required in the market. I focus on them gaining the appropriate experience.
What qualities do you look for in prospective employees?
You realise in the first three months who is worth investing in. You notice who has discipline; and you look at levels of responsibility and how eager the person is to learn. If he is giving time to his profession, if he loves his profession, he could transform in no time. This is a job that greatly affects people and their businesses, so you have to be very careful with what you advise people. Good advice could result in someone creating hundreds of jobs; bad advice could put someone out of business.