​Richard Parris: Finding Comfort in Qatar

by Aidan Devine11 Aug 2014
Richard ParrisKiwi lawyer Richard Parris has been managing his firm's Qatar practice for the last three years and explains what it is like practising in a country with the world's richest citizens.

Richard Parris’s career has had an inextricable relationship with fate. What was supposed to be a short stint practising overseas has turned into a life spent practising in multiple jurisdictions around the world, including the country he has lived in for the last three years: Qatar.

The Kiwi is the managing partner of global firm Clifford Chance’s fl edgling Doha office, launched in 2011, but the lawyer says that his path to taking on this role is one that he never intended when he left New Zealand in the late 1990s as a young lawyer.

Parris started his career at Chapman Tripp, moving to Clifford Chance in 1998. Eager to spend three or four years in a foreign country, he moved to Singapore soon after and began working on a range of exciting cross-border transactions in the resources sector.

Not long after, the idea to return to New Zealand melted away. “I met my [now] wife in Singapore,” Parris says. “She is from California, but she felt that living in Auckland perhaps wasn’t for her.”

This precipitated a move to London, followed by a further move to the United Arab Emirates, where Parris began advising clients in 2003. Parris lived there for eight years, eventually making partner at the firm in 2008.

After gaining considerable experience working on oil and gas projects, as well as massive petrochemical projects in Saudi Arabia, Clifford Chance felt that Parris would be ideally suited to manage its new Doha practice in Qatar.

“I was asked to move to Qatar to open the office, which I deliberated on for a while. I realised it was a good opportunity and it almost became an offer I couldn’t refuse.”

Parris recalls the office’s opening in 2011 as coming just a few weeks after FIFA announced that Qatar’s bid for the 2022 World Cup was successful. The development made it appear that Clifford Chance had opened the office as an opportunistic venture aimed at taking advantage of the World Cup, a view that found a lot of ground in the press.

Parris says the reality was a lot different. “Things like that never happen quickly. It had been in the pipeline for 18 months, but it did change the dynamic of work that was available.”

As confusing as Clifford Chance’s motives for opening its Doha office may have appeared to some people, Parris adds that a changing dynamic, one characterised by high optimism and a feeling of massive changes underfoot, has defined much of his Doha experience.

Among Clifford Chance’s real intentions for opening a Qatar office, according to Parris, was to take advantage of the outbound M&A activity emanating from Qatari investments into countries in Eastern Asia and the Americas, but especially Europe.

“Qatari investors are very inquisitive into overseas markets, and they like Europe particularly. Many of the strategic clients are arms of the Qatar government. They are looking to diversify their petrochemical dollars into a range of assets globally. In some ways, many of these clients have reached a bit of a peak in their cash flow. 

Despite this, Parris says that, like nearly every other big international firm stationed in Doha, the size of the office he
manages is modest. This has partly to do with the size of Qatar itself – the country is home to just two million people – but it also speaks of the one-stream nature of the work itself.

“If you are doing the job properly, the vast amount of the work you are doing will be serviced by offices in other countries. It’s not necessary to execute a lot of the things required in these transactions from Qatar.”

Parris says this is a far cry from his experience in Dubai, where the law offices of international firms can have upwards of 60 lawyers practising.

Being a smaller office compared with Clifford Chance’s operations around the world, Parris explains that the requirement to think like an entrepreneur coaxed him into accepting managing partner responsibilities.

“It was a pretty rare opportunity. Historically, we haven’t been going around the world opening lots of offices. When we opened up Doha in 2011, I think there had been only around three or four (Clifford Chance) offices opening in new countries in the preceding 10 years. It’s not something that happens frequently and I liked that challenge.

“You do need to be quite entrepreneurial in your approach as well. You have to figure out a way to attract clients in areas you’re not familiar with. You have to look at spaces that you wouldn’t normally execute deals in as a lawyer. This requires that you look at how these markets work and the language these clients speak. You have to be on your game to spot the opportunities in these areas. Then your job is to figure out, in a creative fashion, how to go after those opportunities.”

Parris admits that the entrepreneurial challenges of his managing partner role have had to make up for some of the shortcomings of living in Doha. In contrast to Dubai, where he practised before, Doha is not as developed and there are not as many options for entertainment. It has helped that his priorities have changed somewhat in recent years – his sons are now aged seven and three, respectively – but even this has created challenges.

Aided by the World Cup, infrastructure development in Qatar has been rapid, but other services have been slower to develop, particularly schools, and Parris says finding a school placement can be hard.

Aside from these negatives, there are aspects of his Qatar lifestyle that Parris says are hard to beat. “Qatar has a lot of little pockets and some of them are nice. We live in a great area. Out the front of the house there is a large park and tennis court. You can paddleboard and kayak nearby on the weekends. It’s a good lifestyle.”

The one lifestyle component Parris has not got used to, however, is the heat. “I’ve been in the Middle East for years and it’s still brutal. My family tends to return to California in the summer, after school is finished, and I visit them there. I try escaping the heat as much as I can.”

The Qatar lifestyle is also different in the sense that the local people are not always as visible as expats. The majority of the Doha population is comprised of nationalities other than Qataris, and it is migrant workers who fulfil the most visible jobs in society, such as taking orders at coffee shops and serving restaurant customers.

From a practising point of view, Parris says the difference between practising in New Zealand and Qatar is obvious.

“Qatar is a civil law, not a common law jurisdiction, but perhaps the main difference is that New Zealand is very developed in its legal framework. In Qatar that framework isn’t as established. Often it is a blank canvas. If you find an obstacle along the way, it’s possible that you can get the law changed.

“As a consequence, attracting clients such as banks into the market can be difficult. They don’t like that kind of environment.

“Aside from that, the day-to-day office environment isn’t all that different. There are things like Ramadan and you have to be respectful of what you do in public, but obviously this doesn’t affect the way you work as a lawyer.”

This feature is from NZ Lawyer's July issue #6.2. Download the whole issue to read more.