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Bar News - January 14, 2011

Morning Mail: Client Development in Tough Times – A New Approach


Client development is not what it used to be. When I was a partner at Devine Millimet and Branch, client development just seemed to happen. But that was during the "boom" years – long before mortgage-backed securities and other grotesque behaviors shattered the global economy.

Later, as a solo practitioner with only my wife/paralegal/high school sweetheart, Laurie (who runs a theatre company near Lake Winnipesaukee) to help, I began to notice that perhaps the Lakes Region was not the best place for someone who had spent a career in federal court and in front of the SEC. With the profession in shrink-mode, I needed a different marketing approach. I had to go elsewhere for clients.

So I went to Kosovo, in Eastern Europe. But I had a good client – the Republic of Kosovo – and it kept us afloat, introduced me to new and interesting people from around the world, and eventually, via my partner’s connections in Turkmenistan, it led to an introduction to the CEO of a large oil exploration company in the United Arab Emirates. They had issues in the US and wanted to talk.

My partner, Ivan, whom I have known and worked with for years, also had felt the pinch, and also had gone to Kosovo. We decided I would go to Dubai and meet the Arab oil men….

So tonight, here in Dubai, I have met with them and now I’m packing for an 0500 wake-up and the 0730 flight to Istanbul, then back to Kosovo.

The Arabs I met with are not really sure whether they want a full time Chief Legal Officer, a short-term crisis manager, or a general purpose outside counsel. The meetings went well, as bizarre as it was to sit at a board table as the only guy in a western business suit. Everyone else had traditional Arab dress, complete with the white towel and the black fan-belt things around the head. I actually do like the look of the outfit and might just get one like that at the place next door to the hotel, "Delux Tailors." Fun to wear back in Meredith.

As I said, the meetings went well with the oil company and its board of directors. The CEO asked, at a minimum, if we would do some business law work for them. Of course we would. A new client. Hurray!

But by then it was late afternoon. I had flown to Dubai from Boston, via Heathrow. I’d been 32 hours on the road with no sleep.

It had been exhausting to get ready for the interview, do it, and recover from it, so I retreated to the Movenpick Hotel…. The restaurant was closed, so it was room service. I remembered that the Movenpick chain is Swiss, so there was a glimmer of hope. Dinner arrived in ten minutes and was superb. Not just good. A quick call to Ivan, and a nice longer one to Laurie, was followed by 13 hours of sleep. Such was last night.

I woke up bored. I was in Dubai, my plane to Istanbul and Prishtina still 20 hours away, not a friend in sight. So I hired a car for 100 AED – Arab Emirate Dirhams ($30 USD) and told the driver to show me around. My driver knew exactly the same number of English words as I know Arabic ones, but off we went. First, to Port Rashid, a marine center at the end of Dubai Creek, teeming with aging dhows loaded with flat-screen TVs to support money-laundering in India and Pakistan. This was the famous Halawi network, hard at it.

There were a couple of cruise liners getting ready to try to sneak past the Somali pirates just a couple of hundred miles away. I watched them huff and puff their way toward the Strait of Hormuz. Iran is just across the water.

Only 20 percent of the people who live here are actually Arab; a full 60 percent are from India, five percent from Pakistan, five percent from the Far East, and the rest from the EU, UK and US. Fewer Americans than I expected, and many are actually tourists.

The gold market was next: a kilometer long in the old city with gold and jewelry pouring out of the shops. Incredible. I got out and went down some of the narrow alleys, Indiana Jones style, walking past sacks full of spices and flower petals, slabs of ice with fresh fish, baskets, trinkets, 12 different kinds of coffee and 200 kinds of tea. Lots of dates. Lots of "Come here, my American brother!" It occurred to me that I really needed one of those white outfits to blend in better.

On to Al Jumeirah, the residential district and home to many Euros and Americans. Nothing but miles of beachfront mansions which sell for an average of six million AED – two million USD. You can rent one for only about $3K US per month – there are hundreds and hundreds of them, all built when Dubai was booming. At one point 75 percent of all construction cranes in the world were here. The joke was that the Emirates’ national bird was the construction crane. Now, with that bubble also burst, the market is glutted with housing and office space.

Next, the Burj Al Arab, the huge hotel in the shape of a sail which overlooks the palm islands and the world island – you know – the ones built out into the ocean by the Arabs in the shape of palm trees.

Now, the Mall of Dubai. Home of the "Ski Dubai" indoor alpine ski area. Had to go in. Ninety-three degrees outside, 28 inside with 200 meters of snow-covered ski slope.

Then, The Emirates Mall – the largest in the world. The actual largest mall on the planet. Didn’t go in. I don’t go into at malls usually, not Steeplegate, not Mall of New Hampshire, and certainly not The Emirates Mall.

Down the Sheik Zayed Boulevard past the Burj Kalifa, the tallest building in the world at 828 meters (2700 feet) – half a mile straight up. You have to be impressed. The sign hanging outside says, in English, "Office Space to Let." Ya think?

A quick right turn and a few kilometers later the city stops. It just stops. The desert is everywhere. I look around for Peter O’Toole. I really need one of those white outfits. From here, I calculate, a four-wheel drive Land Rover, some Jerry cans of petrol and a few gallons of water can get you overland to Yemen in 12 hours or so. Or you could head north into Saudi Arabia where women can’t drive anywhere in the country except for one suburb which is a sort of Euro-America town. They let Western women drive to the markets and schools so they don’t trouble their husbands with domestic chores.

By now, it was essential. I stopped in at the "Delux Tailor Shop" across from the hotel to pick up the white outfit, my first Arabian business wear. One size 46 full-length white dress, one head towel, also white, two fan-belts. Total $1200 US.

Didn’t do it. I think they saw me coming and somehow they knew I wasn’t a real Arab.

But here on the ground in the Emirates, one thing is obvious: money is everywhere. There is as much money as sand.

And there is pride. The Arabs are a lovely, polite and proud bunch. Not a spot of graffiti, not so much as a candy wrapper or a cigarette butt littering the street. Much more impressive than New York City. I say that because my driver, who has spent his life in the seven Emirates, asked me what New York City was really like. I told him it was like Dubai, but with smaller buildings, dirt, poverty and homeless people. He seemed to understand, even though there is no Arabic word for "homeless."

So, tomorrow, back to work. At least I had a new client for myself and my partner Ivan. Proof that one’s client development skills can adapt to difficult times.

Life – what a journey.

Best to all of you back home in New Hampshire.

Robert of Arabia

Robert McDaniel, a NH attorney, is the Senior Economic Diplomacy Advisor to the Kosovo Ministry of Foreign Affairs Support Project.

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