It's not halfway around the world from Seattle - I think that would be somewhere in the middle of the Indian Ocean. But the hot, dry and crowded streets of North Africa felt very far removed from the cool, damp and - yes - crowded streets of Seattle.
We were in Tunis to attend a wedding in May. Emilien, the French exchange student who lived with us in 2004–05 while attending Garfield High School, was marrying the beautiful Nycene, a Tunisian medical student. With four days of unbridled, high-energy celebrations, we learned that Tunisians could definitely teach Americans a thing or two about how to put on a wedding. But that is another story.
The last day of our stay in Tunisia, I had arranged a meeting with Mohammed Zaanouni, the managing partner of the Zaanouni Law Firm, to learn how the practice of law in Tunisia compares to ours. The first and most obvious difference in the sprawling urban area of Tunis (population approximately 2.3 million) is just getting to the office. While Tunis has some public transport, the streets and highways are jammed with a buzzing, no-holds-barred swarm of taxis and cars. And, as I learned, taxi drivers come equipped with enthusiasm, but not necessarily GPS, nor with a firm grasp on addresses in the city center.
However, my friendly taxi driver, after an initial miss, eventually spotted the restaurant that was our landmark on Rue Iman Rassi, a narrow bustling street. After handing over the requisite dinars for the fare, I mounted the stairs and entered the oasis of the calm, quiet offices of the Zaanouni firm. The receptionist gave me a warm greeting and I was promptly shown into Mohammed Zaanouni's personal office. I took comfort in seeing a teetering stack of files on his desk that looked much like the one on my own desk. We then sat down to share small cups of delicious, thick, Tunisian coffee while we compared notes.
The Zaanouni firm has a primarily commercial practice with a big view to the outside world. Tunisia is not awash in oil like its neighbors to the east, Libya, and to the west, Algeria. Perhaps because of that Tunisia has worked at becoming home base for many international companies such as GE and Microsoft, both of which I learned are clients of the firm. Among the attractions for companies to locate their African headquarters in Tunisia is its functioning, predictable judicial system.
Zaanouni is a sophisticated attorney whose resume includes education in France and time working in a New York City law firm early in his career. With that frame of reference, he emphasized his firm's commitment to attentive client service. This includes maintaining two branch offices for the 20-something-attorney firm in order to be near key clients in areas outside of the capital.
As part of our conversation, Zaanouni underscored the importance of somehow finding time in a hectic practice to periodically meet face-to-face with clients in order to have the kind of human connection that you can never squeeze through even the most sophisticated digital device. That, it struck me, is a lesson that all of us practicing law should be reminded of from time to time.
What are some of the unique challenges to practicing law in Tunis as opposed to Seattle? First, when we Americans talk about the "Revolution," we are usually referring to the distant events of 1776. When Tunisians use that word, they are referring to the tumultuous demonstrations of 2010 that led to the overthrow of President Zane el-Abidine Ben Ali and signaled the start of the Arab Spring. Fortunately, unlike so many other countries in the region, Tunisia has seen a return to the rule of law, including a new, progressive constitution adopted this year that, among other things, provides assurances of equal rights for women.
The revolution clearly put significant stresses on the Tunisian economy, including those who practice law. In fact, Zaanouni told me that if things stay calm, 2014 would be the first year of business returning to normal in Tunisia after coming to a complete halt during the revolution.
My 90-minute conversation with Zaanouni did not allow us to dive into the kinds of differences in practicing law in Tunisia that result from its foundation in the French legal system (with an overlay of Islamic law) as opposed to our own common law-based system. However, we did find many parallels in our shared belief in serving our clients using all of the education, tools and professionalism available to us.
When facing the challenges presented by this dynamic and increasingly unpredictable 21st Century, that is not a bad set of values, whether your office is in North Africa or North America.
KCBA President Steve Rovig is a principal with Hillis Clark Martin & Peterson P.S. where his practice emphasizes commercial real estate. Rovig can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-470-7620.