Heading up a maritime law firm in Dubai proved irresistible for an Iranian-German lawyer. Being the head of one of the biggest dedicated maritime law firms in the Middle East makes Jasamin Fichte a very busy woman.
At a lunch meeting with TradeWinds on the rooftop of one of the city’s large office towers, Fichte multitasks several phone calls, one of which involves supervising the placement of a large anchor in the garden of her home, while giving a string of instructions to one of her junior lawyers. Eventually the junior is dismissed and the anchor is placed on the patio. Phones are switched off and attention is turned to the interview at hand. Hailing from Hamburg, the daughter of an Iranian-born father and a German mother, Fichte says she wanted to be a lawyer from the age of 10. Little did she realise at the time that she would be working in maritime law despite coming from Germany’s premier shipping city.
“Originally I wanted to be a criminal lawyer. I have always had a strong sense of what is right and wrong. I got this from my mother who was a police inspector,” she said. Fichte began her law career as a junior judge in a German criminal court, writing up judgments for manslaughter cases, something she says she did not enjoy. It was an ex-fiance that set her down the maritime path. “For five years, I proofread his submissions on insurance cases over the weekends. I liked it so I started training at a maritime law firm,” she said. Fichte fell in love with shipping after handling a maritime-insurance claim. “In shipping law, you never get bored because you never do the same thing again. I have been a maritime lawyer for 15 years and I never stop learning,” she said. With her career firmly focussed on shipping, Fichte set out from Hamburg to get a masters degree in maritime law at Southampton’s Institute of Maritime Law, something she describes as one of the best years of her life. She went to work in London for what she describes as one of the top five British law firms. “We Hamburgers don’t like to leave Hamburg for a long time because we like it too much. But I decided to work in London so that I could understand English solicitors. I never could understand them before. I thought this was either because they were too dumb or so brilliant,” she quipped. Two years at a major London law firm was enough for Fichte, who describes herself as being too loud and straightforward to fit in with the office politics of a large legal firm. “It was great exposure for me but I realised that working for a big international money-making machine was not my thing. I want to be a human being, not just a fee-earner,” she said. Fichte had a job offer from a large law firm in Hamburg and while she intended to accept it, she decided to spend her gardening leave visiting a friend in Dubai. “I wanted to work on my PhD and eight years later, I am still here and still don’t have my PhD,” she said. In Dubai, Fichte reassessed her priorities and decided that moving back to Hamburg would mean facing the same office politics she left behind in London. “I liked Dubai. In 2002, it was an amazing place — its still a bit like a village. I am half Iranian, a mix of East and West, which is what Dubai is as well. Somehow we just clicked,” Fichte said. The first job that came Fichte’s way in Dubai was as an in-house lawyer for the insurance firm Heath Lambert. Although initially not thrilled with working as an in-house lawyer, Fichte describes it as a fantastic learning experience as she was able to work with a variety of shipowners ranging from the top-notch to the substandard. She says she became unimpressed with the standards of maritime lawyers as were many of the shipowners. “Obviously, they like the way I worked because they started pushing me to open up my own law firm,” she said. That big step came in 2005. “I had no savings, no business plan, nothing. But a shipowner friend offered me an interest-free loan and that got me started,” she said. Fichte & Co began with Fichte handling maritime-insurance claims. She admits it was tough to break into the market but after she secured National Iranian Tanker Co (NITC) as her first major client, business started to take off. “Chairman Souri of NITC gave my company a big endorsement of trust. He said it didn’t matter if we were big or small as long as we did a good job,” she explained. Fichte & Co’s formation could not have come at a better time as 2005 was the beginning of the boom time in Dubai and business was brisk. The firm quickly expanded its legal scope by bringing in a corporate lawyer. Today, it employs eight maritime lawyers covering just about every segment of the maritime legal field and has offices in both Dubai and Tehran. Fichte remains extremely passionate about her business and says that it is imperative for a boutique law firm to look for niche businesses to keep one step ahead of the competition. She is also well known for playing an active role in building up maritime-law competency in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), working closely with the establishment of the UAE ship registry and helping to train the future judges of the maritime court. As for the anchor? “I bought that at a maritime charity auction. It was too big to put in the office, so I had no choice but to put it in my garden,” she said. The anchor will remain at her home for one year and then be put up for auction again. Fichte expects continued success in the emirate after becoming firmly anchored in Dubai’s shipping world. By Jonathan Boonzaier Dubai Published: 21:59 GMT, 24 Jun 10 | updated: 20:07 GMT, 23 Jun 10