Interviewing Donia El-Mazghouny, Partner at Shahid Law
By Abdel Rahman Sami.
Firstly, let us know about your journey into law school?
Since I was very young, I have always liked to read and write a lot, so I was naturally drawn to journalism at first. But, following an extremely interesting presentation of their curriculum and career opportunities by the French section of the Faculty of Law of the Cairo University at my high school, I decided that I was going to study law for my bachelor’s degree.
I was actually so keen on getting into law school that I spent a good part of the summer break following high school personally going to the University to double-check the progress of the admission process, even though I had the qualifying grades and had done very well in the admission interviews
It was once said that being a lawyer is only a man’s career as a defying example of that idea. Does that count as a fact?
Unfortunately, this gender bias exists, but I personally do not believe that a career in law is a “man-only thing”. Women are generally very intuitive, but also details and facts diggers, which helps a great deal in law. Excluding women from the legal field would in my view be a great loss.
Do you believe that your vision is different from men?
I do believe that the real issue is culture and prejudice. I would not say that women are innately less good at analytical or quantitative skills, but it is true that both the law and money have traditionally been perceived as male-dominated subjects no matter. This is changing now, as girls are seeing more and more female leaders in the legal and business circles, so they feel more empowered to integrate those circles themselves.
Gaining the trust of your clients is a crucial thing, what do you think are the important factors that would affect a client/lawyer relationship?
I believe that being “present” and being a “good listener” are very important factors which help you gain your clients’ trust. By being present, I mean firstly being reachable and responsive; as in any service industry, your client always needs to be treated as your first priority. If you do know the answer to their questions, do not delay it; and if you do not know it, research the matter at once and find the right answers for them. But it also means knowing when to say no and how to set the right expectations for your clients, whether in terms of feasibility of their request or timelines or fees, etc. This might appear counter-intuitive, but believe me, being realistic (while exerting best efforts of course!) definitely sets you apart.
Being a good listener requires you to always ask your clients what they need of you, how can you help them develop their venture or business, what you can do beyond the law perhaps to network them with business partners you may know, and so on, because asking the right questions will help you identify what your clients really want, and help you be a real added value to them. It is important to try to give your clients what they truly need, not only what you can offer at any particular time, as this will help you constantly improve as a lawyer and your firm as a service provider.
Fresh graduates are often faced with the requirement of experience when they apply to businesses, how are they to overcome such a thing?
I see this issue much when I take part in interviewing fresh graduates; they often think that they have no value to add to the firm or company they are applying to because they do not have enough or any experience at all. This is not true in my view. Law firms, in particular, are always on the look for good fresh calibers, because they are simply the secret to growth and continuity.
There will always be an opening for non-experienced law graduates who can demonstrate the right set of skills and eagerness to learn – these are definite hiring material. This is what fresh graduates should keep in mind when applying for a job out of law school, and it should also be remembered by every lawyer of any level of experience who is looking for the next challenge.
The key is to honestly present what you have learned thus far, what you can do, and that you can learn what the law firm would be able to teach you; this is what would incentivize a law firm to invest in hiring and training you.
Applying for internships through their years of study also helps a lot, both in presenting themselves and their activities in an interview, as well as to give them an idea of the kind of job they would be applying for.
Ms. Donia, we have examined few of the cases you’ve handled throughout the years, that drives us to a very curious question, how do you balance your work and your personal life?
That is actually your toughest question so far! It takes a lot of effort to realize something meaningful; and if you want to reach a certain spot in life or call yourself an achiever, you have to really work for it. You cannot do the minimum required and expect big success; it does not work this way in real life. I believe that you have to make a decision early in your career whether you want to keep the law as a simple job, or you want to carve yourself a well-established place in the legal field. If you choose the latter, you need to have the passion and the patience, and you need to have the will to give all it takes for you to shine in the legal community.
In the light of the obstacles that face people working in the legal field, what is your source of power to drive forward as some people might simply give up for the joy of the moment?
I think our biggest challenge as a law firm is always having to make a balancing act between being a private service which is always bound by strict efficiency requirements, and depending on daily interaction with governmental authorities which are still restrained by a large baggage of bureaucracy despite the current push for more flexibility and facilitation in the public sector. This definitely slows you down. It is also sometimes very difficult to explain or justify to your clients, who often come from a different culture and different business background if you deal with international clients. Having to deal with the frustration of lack of transparency, inaccessibility of documents or information, or changing views and unavailability of written opinions from certain public authorities, for instance, can be
The Egyptian legal system, what are the issues in it, and what can we do to improve it?
I believe that there is a very positive push from the government to improve the legal and regulatory framework for business, which is the field I work in. We have recently seen several long-awaited new laws and legislative amendments being passed aiming to update, simplify or facilitate processes to attract foreign direct investments in particular. The new Investment Law, amendments to the Companies Law, and the new Value-Added Tax Law, Industrial Licencing Law, Insolvency Law, and Movable Collaterals Law, are all very good examples of this trend.
However, we are still lagging behind in terms of implementation of these laws. Either we have to wait for a long time for executive regulations to be published, or cumbersome internal processes within the relevant public authorities continue to prevent the intended reforms from being fully implemented.
You talk about the reformation of the system, you think this is the only problem.
Of course not, but I am on the one hand speaking only from the business laws perspective, and on the other trying to highlight the bright side, not only the problems. To me, implementation is key as I mentioned, because, without it, the best laws in the world would remain a dead letter. For instance, if you have legislation mandating that companies’ incorporation must be completed in one day, but in real life, you get stuck at ratification by crippling, but they do teach you a great deal of diplomacy and due care, as they can either make or break your trust relationship with your client.
several governmental entities and you have to deal with an electronic publication system that is malfunctioning, in addition to pre-licensing processes with long lead-times, you will end up spending months before you have an up and running business. Another example of problems faced delays in the issuance of executive regulations and internal processes, similar to what we have recently seen in connection with the new Industrial Licences Law for instance. So I believe more effort needs to be put into the system to improve it and make it more efficient.
As 2017 is coming to an end, what did this year mean to the firm and the legal community? On both positive and negative sides.
2017 brought a number of reforms to the legal system, which I believe should lead to a positive outcome, namely the investment reform, the subsidy and spending cuts, the tax reform, and the energy market overhaul. Several legislations were passed, which address most pressing needs of the business community. I note with particular interest the new Investment Law and Gas Law (the latter complementing the Electricity Law of 2015 in deregulating the energy market) which my team and I have to deal with on a daily basis.
Are your postgraduate studies were slightly irrelevant to your role?
On the contrary; for both my Master’s degrees, I studied International and European Business Law, and International Financial Law, both of which is very relevant topics to my corporate, energy and projects practice.
It may be true that bachelors degree courses do not totally prepare you for law practice in Egypt. But I believe that when you pursue post-graduate studies, it is much more beneficial to do so when you have had a few years of work experience and have identified the fields you are most keen to work in, in order to benefit the most of studies by deepening your knowledge in the relevant areas of law.
What kind of cases do you accept?
When you have been working for a number of years and have established a certain expertise in a particular field, you can trust clients to bring your way relevant deals and projects. In my case, this is true in project finance and energy work, which have been the focus of my practice for the past few years. I personally have a preference for untouched grounds, new areas of law and new types of projects, such as the feed-in tariff renewable energy programme when first launched back in 2014 for example; these are very challenging projects because the framework is not necessarily well established in Egypt, so you have to do a lot of research, comparative reviews, and work a lot with international counsel gaining new expertise. I find this kind of work very interesting and gratifying.
from your point of view, what are your expectations for oil and gas and business generally in Egypt through the upcoming years?
I think the oil and gas field will continue to be a great source of foreign direct investment in Egypt, as the field will see a lot of new opportunities after this year’s gas market liberalisation and new tender rounds, as well as the country’s efforts to develop a solid energy efficiency programme, such as most recently by joining the global initiative to end routine gas flaring for instance.
Is having a lot of oil and gas corporations in Egypt a good or a bad thing?
I believe it is a very good thing because it helps diversify foreign funding flows and creates a sound competition between various players, to avoid what would otherwise be a monopolization of the market by a few giant global oil and gas players. It also brings to the market diverse techniques and trains a pool of labor force up international standards, which are very positive outcomes.
You were recommended by legal 500 as “a rising star in the renewable energy market”, as “hardworking and diligent”, and for “always going the extra mile”. What do you think of such words?
I certainly take a lot of pride in this recognition, especially because, as a guide, Legal500 is based only on clients and peers reviews. I always try to do my best to maintain this trust and appreciation, and I am very grateful for the loyalty of my clients and the respect of my peers which I get in return.
Why did you choose the energy field?
I enjoy setting up projects and new business ventures. I also find project finance extremely interesting. The energy field allows me to work on both aspects. Also, because it is largely based on model contracts, whether the Production Sharing Agreements we use in the oil and gas field or the Power Purchase Agreements we see in the power sector, it involves a lot of legal analysis and interpretation work, constantly juggling law and contractual arrangements, which I find mentally gratifying. I am also very passionate about the subject of climate change, and I try through my work in the energy sector to be a driver for raising awareness and market shift towards green and efficiency projects and initiatives.
Finally, do you have a message for students or the next generation lawyers?
To borrow some of Steve Jobs’ words of wisdom, I would encourage students to find something that they love to do, and do it, because it is the only way of doing great work. Do not go to law school for grades or convenience. Find what interests you in this very rich field, work on it, and create your own opportunity if the opportunity does not present itself to you at once.