MUSCAT, June 5 - Ben Ewing, with his confident demeanour and affable manner, could almost have jumped off the pages of a John Grisham novel.
I put it to him that the luster of the profession has taken something of a hammering, especially in recent years.
He smiled genuinely, knowingly, and responded that, “while recent books and films may not always show us in our best light, we have been respected pillars of every successful society throughout history.” It’s an answer that is refreshingly aware, positive, not at all defensive, and succinct.
Only a fool would respond, “Yeah but…” Ewing is a partner, with Amur al Rashdi, in Amur Al Rashdi and Benjamin Ewing Advocates and Legal Consultants, the Oman registered entity operating on behalf of global legal giants CMS.
He explained that, “when considered as a single legal entity, CMS could rightly be seen as one of the largest in the world.”
With its origins established as far back as 1779, it is certainly one of the oldest and most prestigious firms in the world, albeit with modest beginnings, when T Hewitt opened a law practice in London.
The practice is currently represented by 70 offices in 39 different jurisdictions, in all corners of the world.
Interestingly, Henry Markby, a legal descendant of Hewitt’s, was President of the Law Society of England and Wales, but achieved further societal prominence, and sometimes notoriety, as an acquaintance of renowned playwright Oscar Wilde.
There must have been a falling out however, as Wilde was to cleverly ridicule Markby in his hit play ‘The Importance of Being Earnest,’ making fun of a legal firm by the name of Markby, Markby and Markby, which cannot fail to bring a smile to any conversation.
Fast forward to 1997, and the firm of Cameron Markby Hewitt merged with fellow Londoners McKenna & Co, to form Cameron McKenna, later to join with German legal giants Sigle, hence the acronymic global branding and identity of CMS.
Their services are based in the energy, hospitality, media and communications, infrastructure, construction and real estate, and consumer services sectors, and in recent years have achieved a prominent MENA profile through the establishment of offices in Morocco, Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Iran, the UAE and Oman, to name just a few, with their broad experience and expertise, and global support structures a key element of their burgeoning local reputation.
As Ewing put it, “CMS has a policy of going where our clients go, and just because the environment may have significant social and cultural differences has little or no impact on our ability to provide our full range of services.”
Ewing was loath to describe their firm as different, as to do so may antagonise his fellow legal firms, though he is immensely proud of the comparative number of Omanis they employ, and the high standard of their Omani legal staff.
He proudly introduced young lawyer Salah al Rashdi, and intern Mohab al Rawas, as beneficiaries of the CMS training programme. In addition, Ali al Juma has recently qualified as a solicitor with the prestigious entitlement to practice in England and Wales following the successful completion of his training contract with the firm, and he will be joined imminently by colleague Sarah al Hinai, with the same privilege. Each of these CMS recruits, and others to follow, will benefit from the CMS Academy, which takes their fledgling ‘legal eagles’ to another level via video conferencing, online mentor programmes, and international workshops and events.
Ewing explained that “this level of support and development will drive the team’s professional development to unprecedented levels of excellence in the capital.”
He is also adamant that the young Omani lawyer of today is no different from those all over the world, and understanding business culture, and gaining insights into how a legal office actually functions, are the things they cannot possibly understand while functioning only in a university environment.
After all, Abraham Lincoln once said that, “if you are absolutely determined to become a lawyer, you are halfway there,” but Ewing can see that in order to develop young legal minds it is not intelligence that is the issue, but rather an absence of soft-skills due to the different environment they have been exposed to.
Not therefore, an inability to interact effectively with others, but an inability to do so without the predisposed inhibitions or self-consciousness of their society’s culture.
“Again,” he said, “We are working with the concerned ministries to facilitate opportunities for sharing knowledge between Omani graduates, and those established in the sector, so they can see their profession as it is, and for what they must become, and be able to do, to function effectively in it.” Ewing has a very obvious emotional and intellectual investment in the Sultanate, and its society, evident in the enthusiasm and passion with which he has embraced the Omanisation of his office, exceeding the national requirements with ease.
That very passion for the Sultanate is very evident as he is diverted momentarily and identifies the “absolute magnificence of Jebel Shams, and the stunning beauty of a blossom laden Al Wakan village,” as two of his favourite places, “not only in Oman, but in the world.” He dotes on his Omani dog, named ‘Watson,’ and his 4 (“Yes, four, it is a bit excessive isn’t it?”) cats, including two Omanis, laughing as he recalls some incredulous reactions to the scale of his pet-food purchases at the local supermarkets.
Back to business though, and while commenting that “managing the implications of Oman’s process driven legal system, as opposed to a ‘black letter law’ based European legal system, can be challenging where the intricacies of international trade and finance are concerned,” Ewing introduced Abdallah Elchami, of Najah Consultants.
Elchami has been working with CMS, the Ministry of Justice in Oman, and Nottingham University in the UK, to set up a pilot International Legal Practice Course, which he says, “will formalise the further development of the Omani legal fraternity in their effective management of international legal practices and requirements, to ensure best practice going forward.”
He explained that signing of a memorandum of understanding between the parties is imminent, and will be a “watershed agreement in producing graduates capable of functioning in the global legal environment.”
Describing the differences between advocacy and consultancy, as practiced within the Sultanate, and its unique court system, Ewing explained that much of their business is based around the local ownership component of new business initiatives, company structures, and labour law requirements, and is adamant that while relatively few disputes occur, “on my watch,” and that most complications arise due to leaving professional intervention until too late.
The old adage that a man who represents himself has a fool for a client, springs to mind, but Ewing is more forgiving, simply feeling that most of us are loath to believe that such ‘complications’ will ever occur.
“If more people in, or going into business, sought advice earlier, fewer things would go wrong.
Maybe if, as with their doctors, people came to us earlier for advice, rather than waiting until the damage is done, they would have a happier result.”
He continued, saying that, “This is such a friendly, often informal and remarkably open society in many ways, that trust is given and taken freely, on a word, a nod, or a handshake, but especially today, the business landscape can change overnight, and the business, social and financial implications can be immediate and regrettable.”
Ewing may not be the Oman based equivalent of Grisham’s ‘Rainmaker,’ or if he is, it’s the one thing he’s not doing a very good job of.
He admits too, that as a ‘Partner,’ ‘Associate,’ and ‘Litigator,’ though never a ‘Street Lawyer,’ he has very little, ‘Time to Kill,’ but when he does, he’s either training for the Edinburgh Half-Marathon, preparing meals a-la-Master Chef, or “sussing out shows to go to at the Opera House, which is amaaaaazing!”
A cosmopolitan package, evidenced in a ready wit and engaging personality are only a part of what Ewing ‘brings to the table,’ so to speak, as he displays a ready grasp, not only of the needs of his clients, but a willingness to embrace the cultural and societal intricacies of the Sultanate, which in three very short years, has established itself in his heart, and embedded its needs, in his professional consciousness, leaving an indelible perspective, rich in respect for its traditions and customs.
Ben Ewing is yet another expatriate contributing to the rich tapestry that is Oman today, looking to the future with optimism, energy and enthusiasm.
Learning from today to make tomorrow, better.
Investing his personal, cultural and professional capital today, to see the Omani legal fraternity exceed its own expectations and maximise its collective potential, in the future.
By Ray Petersen