An interview with Mona Zulficar
In Part 1 of a two-part interview series, Mona Zulficar, Founding Partner of Zulficar & Partners, shares with Law Today how her early experience has framed her work as one of Egypt’s most renowned and successful lawyers and fed into her law firm’s institutional growth.
LT: Your professional expertise spans many different areas – from restructuring and M&As to drafting economic legislation to working as the Vice Chair of the UN Human Rights Council Advisory Committee. Did you always intend to pursue such diverse specialisations, or is one your particular passion?
MZ: Initially I did my undergraduate degree at the Faculty of Economics and Political Science at Cairo University, not at that point aware of my passion for law. As I was graduating I realised I wanted to be a lawyer, so I went back and did another degree in law. This turned out to be very fortuitous, as at this time the Egyptian economy was just opening up and the need for specialised lawyers who could combine an understanding of economics, political science and law was great, especially those who could speak foreign languages as 75% of our work is in English. Going to law school in the 80s wasn’t popular, and I served as an example to young men and women – especially women – that they could pursue this kind of career.
My professional expertise, developed over 30 years of practice, is specifically in banking and finance, restructuring and M&As. This type of work is a full time job and typically quite demanding and stressful.
However, I devote a lot of time and energy to working on a voluntary basis advocating human rights, women’s rights and helping to build the microfinance industry in Egypt, something I am very passionate about.
Currently, I serve as Chairperson of the Egyptian Microfinance Federation, which supports NGOs and the private sector working together to fight poverty in a sustainable manner. I also chair Al Tadamun Microfinance Foundation, which I founded over 20 years ago, and which finances micro-projects of poor women. Across the microfinance industry in Egypt, 70% of the beneficiaries are women so it is a wonderful thing to empower marginalized women economically and contribute to improvement of the quality of their lives through microfinance.
My work on human rights and women’s rights started in the 80s, as a young law school graduate. But I had grown up in an environment where these issues were prioritised. As the daughter of an incredible father, a film star and producer who featured in and produced some of the most well recognised films defending the rights of women in Egyptian and Arab cinema, and a mother who dedicated all her spare time to helping the poor and marginalized at the Women’s Health Improvement Association, I grew up with a compulsion to speak out on behalf of the disenfranchised.
My father produced and starred in a film called My Wife is the General Manager, the main premise of which is that a wife can be, in effect, the boss of her husband. Another extremely well-known film he produced starred Faten Hamama and was called I Want a Solution. It tells the story of women suffering in family courts as they try to fight for their rights – to get a divorce, to procure alimony payments, to get custody of their children. This film became a major instrument of change, helping to change family law.
So I found myself as a young lawyer working on all the issues raised by these films. Among my contributions were to the equal right to divorce law (Khul), including guarantees of alimony payments and financial maintenance payments, as well as the Family Courts law and the amendments to the Nationality Law. You develop such passions largely as a result of your environment.
Human rights, naturally linked with women’s rights, are another area for which I advocate strongly, staying on the UN Human Rights Council’s Advisory Committee for five years, for example.
LT: This trajectory must have been full of challenges!
MZ: It was very challenging. As a very young lawyer I would enter meetings with important clients, governmental representatives or the heads of banks and they would look at me as if to ask “who is this little girl?” So I had first to prove that this “little girl” had something valuable to contribute, then show that whatever I thought should be the way forward was reasonable, fair, good advice. So really I faced a twofold set of challenges.
But once you gain self-confidence and you demonstrate that you will operate in a balanced manner, you gain people’s respect. Then it is your clients who build your reputation for you. Once you gain the respect, not only of the client but of your opposing party, you find yourself in a very strong position. I have an innate sense of fairness, but I also benefitted from the training I received at that time.
Mr. Ali El Shalakany (Senior), who trained about six lawyers of our generation, taught us to be transaction lawyers. That is to say, we were not just dealing with law in its simplest form but offering advice to develop transactions and we carried the responsibility of making sure that the conditions were set for these transactions to be successful. The key to doing this is to make sure the contract governing any transaction is fair and balanced; if you do that you will always gain the respect of both parties. Your client is of course happy to have a successful transaction and the other party is happy to have the basis for a successful project because of a fair, balanced contract. This is how we were trained and we have continued that legacy.
This has enabled me and my partners in Zulficar & Partners to acquire a reputation that we can be trusted to resolve problems; we are problem solvers and not just advisers. The capital of any law firm is not calculated by reference to revenue but by reference to your professional reputation and the trust of clients, the opposing party, the court system and the community.
LT: Zulficar & Partners has become one of the Egyptian legal community’s powerhouse law firms. What do you feel were the principle lessons you learned throughout the earlier part of your career that you have since applied successfully to founding and overseeing your own firm?
MZ: There are certain principles that I have learned and learned the hard way. The ultimate challenge is to build an institution. No one or two people can serve the corporate world alone, especially because now specialisation is the key to success. So in our law firm we require each partner and lawyer to have a primary specialisation and a secondary specialisation. This is crucial because sometimes you will have a lot of work related to, for example, project finance or M&A’s and at other times you will have a lot of settlements and rescheduling. So each lawyer needs to have two types of specialisations – but not more than that. Then there are thematic specialisations, areas like tax, labour, competition law; each is cross-cutting and doesn’t work in the same way as practice area specialisations.
How to structure your partnership is also key. The challenge is to make the partnership an institution, with rules and principles that always eliminate conflict between the personal interests of every single partner and the partnership itself, to keep everyone aligned. The problem is simply that we never have enough time for ourselves. We always advise our clients how best to do things but we never have time to advise and take care of our institutions. But of course we have to push ourselves to always deliver more and to build the institution.
Human resources of course always represent a challenge for any organisation – how to choose the best lawyers and how to help them develop, to give them real opportunities for growth, training and progress. It is not easy finding candidates of the best calibre but we work hard to do so and to nurture their talent. We are very firm on equal opportunity and so during our selection process fresh graduates will undergo both a written test and an interview with a committee of at least two partners. Lawyers cannot be evaluated just through a written test, because other skills and character are part and parcel of what makes a successful lawyer.
Historically we have worked to help law schools produce better education systems – so for instance, I played an important role in advocating for offering undergraduate and postgraduate law degrees in English and French at Cairo University in the 1990s. One of our founding partners, Dr. Mohamed Salah, was a key player in establishing the Indiana Master’s degree program at Cairo University. This program trained high calibre lawyers which have been recruited by the law firms and major corporates in Egypt.
We are trying to help in every way. Developing the legal profession helps the profession, helps our country, supports the administration of justice and of course helps our law firm.