Women come into their own in law - Samaa Haridi

In celebration of International Women’s Month, we are profiling some of the exceptional Hogan Lovells women from around the world who are working with and on the African continent. What better way to celebrate these phenomenal women than finding out more about them and in particular, their journey in the legal industry.

Samaa Haridi is a Partner in our New York office. She is a civil and common law-trained, trilingual lawyer who represents corporations and financial institutions in international commercial and investment arbitrations. She was recently appointed by the ICC International Court of Arbitration as a Court member, representing Egypt.

What motivated you to choose a career in law?

Meeting a single person; Professeur Francois-Xavier Lucas of the Sorbonne University, whom I met at the age of 17 in Cairo, and who changed the course of my life, quite literally.

There are no lawyers in my family. After graduating high school in 1993 from the Cairo French Lycée, my family encouraged me to enroll at the American University in Cairo and pursue business administration or political science majors. The prospect of living abroad alone to attend university was not on the table. I learned through a teacher at the Lycée that the Université of Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne was planning to offer a first-year French law curriculum at Cairo University. I traveled to the University to verify if this was real, and I was greeted by a then young French law graduate (Prof. Lucas), who had been sent to Cairo to teach at the Sorbonne branch and assess the feasibility of offering a French law degree in Cairo. He convinced me during a 20-minute conversation that I should enroll into this brand new law programme, with no guarantees that it would continue beyond a first-year offering. The prospect of studying in French was key, and I liked (although I didn't really understand) the idea of being a lawyer. So I went on and took part in this experimental journey of the Sorbonne University establishing itself in Cairo, and I thrived in it for two years. Because none of the voluminous French legal curriculum books were available in Egypt at the time, Mr Lucas would purchase or photocopy them in Paris and bring them on an ad hoc basis to us. Sadly, not enough students successfully passed the exams in Cairo to justify the opening of a third-year class. I benefited from this unfortunate circumstance by being awarded a Valedictorian scholarship by the French Embassy in Cairo to pursue the rest of my studies at the Sorbonne in Paris.

How did you get where you are today, and who/what helped you along the way?

I have been practicing law for almost 20 years. I moved to the United States in 1999 to pursue an LLM., after completing my legal studies at the Sorbonne. I knew from law school that I wanted a career in international arbitration (IA) but, like many young graduates, I could not find a job anywhere in the IA field. So I started my career in Los Angeles as a litigation associate. I acquired tremendous litigation experience (which, today, I would not trade for anything) and I gained the respect and trust of my colleagues. That allowed me to seek, at the appropriate time, a geographic transfer within my then-firm to New York, where I knew more IA work opportunities existed. I worked really hard to find a way to catch up, and I did. The effort was internal in terms of gaining exposure, making sure the partners doing that type of work knew me, and it was external through publishing, joining organisations, and speaking, in order to be recognised in the IA community.

I was fortunate to have several key mentors along the way (including Hogan Lovells New York Managing Partner Ollie Armas, years ago at a firm that no longer exists). My mentors/sponsors were all male partners, and they supported me and gave me the space to develop as an advocate. I also benefited from the invaluable support of my husband, who is also a lawyer. A career in IA involves a lot of travel, and he (almost) never complains about my repeated absences, even when our kids were at a young age. Finally, the community of women in IA at other large firms in New York has played a big role for me. We went from being a handful to now a sizeable group of women partners in this field, and the boosts we give to one another are key. We often consult each other on various challenging issues and their counsel is invaluable to me. We are all committed to each other’s successes, and our friendships are genuine and strong.

What advice would you give to young women who want to succeed in the workplace?

  • Try your best not to think about what side of the “advantage line” you are on. Do the best you can, within your personal circumstances, without comparing yourself to others. I caught myself on a few occasions over the years thinking that, as a mother, and wife of a spouse who is also a full-time practicing lawyer, it was harder for me than for some others, but I do not allow those thoughts to simmer.
  • Keep an open mind. It’s important to realise when you’re starting your career that there are so many possibilities, and that your mind may change, you might find new interests. And sometimes the opportunity to do what you want to do is not going to present itself right in the beginning. Be patient, prove yourself, and the opportunities will come.
  • Invest some time in relevant organisations and Bar associations. Don't think “immediate reward” before committing your time to a project. Sometimes the reward may not be apparent, but goodwill goes a long way.

What would you say that you do to empower more females in law to be taken seriously in the workplace?

Practice straight talk. It took me years to feel comfortable doing it, but I now see that my voice counts and that when I express an opinion, it matters and people do take it seriously. Straight talk doesn't mean becoming a serial complainer or speaking only when things are bad. Straight talk also means recognizing the achievements of others and speaking out about them when they go unnoticed. I encourage others to do the same.

I care about diversity in the workplace, and I started a “Mentoring Circles” initiative when I joined the New York office, and I included non-diverse participants in every circle to make sure that everyone was invested in the initiative. I also started a MENA Affinity Group in the U.S., focused on the community of attorneys and staff with a MENA connection, where one of our goals is to advocate for the professional development and advancement of MENA Affinity Group members. I seek active participation by the male attorneys in these initiatives because their support and commitment to diversity are essential towards an effective corporate diversity initiative.

What is one leadership lesson you’ve learned in your career?

Being a good leader is first and foremost making your colleagues look good and creating opportunities for them. It is about others, not about yourself. I learned that this form of leadership is far more rewarding than sprinting alone for your own success.

Discuss a specific accomplishment you’ve achieved that made you thrive in the current position you are in?

Last year, I was appointed by the ICC International Court of Arbitration as a Court member, representing Egypt. This is a highly coveted position which had never previously been offered to an Egyptian living outside of Egypt. It is a great honour, and I enjoy the opportunities this position has given me to meet other Court members from around the world and connect with the IA community at-large.

How do you achieve work-life balance?

I have two children, aged 8 and 11, and I am not sure that the perfect balance is achievable, at least not by implementing a rigid and inflexible system. The method that works for me is to let my priorities guide me, whether they are at work or at home. Sometimes, the balance tilts towards work, and sometimes it allows for more free time at home. In the end, I try to make the most of each of these and to enjoy them to the fullest extent.

What has been the role of luck in your success?

Huge; if I had not been fortunate enough to see the Sorbonne University opening up a branch in Cairo the very year I graduated from high school, and meeting Professeur Lucas, I would likely be in a different profession in a different country today. Luck is important, but I have always done my best to capitalise on luck and to push myself forward constantly by working hard and striving for excellence. Luck is always a part of the equation, but hard work and determination are the key ingredients to success.

This article forms part of our Women in Law series. The first article in the series was authored by Carol Campbell, published on Africa Legal on 8 March and is reproduced here with kind permission from the publishers.

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