The Door To Law – Donya Fredj – S3E13

This week on our Legally Speaking Podcast, powered by KC Partners, our host Rob Hanna was joined by Donya Fredj.

Donya is a Lawyer, Mentor, Start-Up & VC Expert, Lecturer of the GDL & QLTS and if all that is not enough she is also the proud Host of her highly popular “The Door to Law” YouTube Channel!  

Donya has lived in London, Paris, Tokyo, Tunis and is currently based in Dubai!

Donya and Rob discuss:

  • Her journey to breaking into the legal sector
  • Her experiences working as Corporate Associate in London versus working as a Corporate Associate in Dubai
  •  All things start-ups
  •  Her hit YouTube Channel “The Door to Law”
  • Her role with GROW Mentoring!
  •  The benefits of lawyers embracing social media platforms


[0:00:00.8] Rob Hanna: Welcome to The Legally Speaking Podcast powered by Kissoon Carr. I’m your host Rob Hanna. Today, I’m delighted to be joined by Donya Fredj. Donya keeps herself very busy. She is a lawyer, mentor, start up and VC Expert, lecturer of the GDL, and the QLTS and if all of that is not enough, she is also the host of the highly popular Door to Law YouTube channel. So, a very big welcome, Donya.

[0:00:26.6] Donya Fredj: Hello, Rob, how are you?

[0:00:27.8] Rob Hanna: Very well, thank you. Very well, really pleased to have you on the podcast. And before we go through all of your amazing work, we must start with our customary question on The Legally Speaking Podcast. On the scale of one to ten, ten being very real, how real would you rate the hit TV series Suits in terms of its reality reflection of the law?

[0:00:51.9] Donya Fredj: Yeah, I love this question. I love Suits as well and every time I watch it, I’m like how is my life not as glamorous as this show. So, based on that, I would probably rate it a four.

[0:01:02.6] Rob Hanna: Four! Okay. I’m surprised you gave it that high. I thought you were going to give it a real two, but I guess you like a bit of Hollywood as well, right?

[0:01:09.9] Donya Fredj: Yeah, occasionally. Maybe I’m just trying to be generous, I don’t know. On the bad days, maybe it’ll probably be a two.

[0:01:16.3] Rob Hanna: Yeah, yeah, indeed, indeed. So, listen, let’s jump into it because there’s a lot to get through, but as we like to with all of our listeners, let’s start at beginning. Tell us a bit about your family background and upbringing.

[0:01:28.1] Donya Fredj: Yeah, sure and first actually, I have to say, I’m very excited to be on this podcast too by the way. Just wanted to mention that.

[0:01:33.5] Rob Hanna:  Awe! Thanks.

[0:01:35.4] Donya Fredj: So, I was born in the U.K. Both of my parents are actually Tunisian and so they’ve been in the U.K. for now, I don’t want to give my age away but over 30 years and so most of my education was in the U.K. and we’ll come on to my work experience later I’m sure but I’ve worked in the U.K. before eventually moving to the Middle East which is where I’m based right now. I would say that I had a very modest upbringing. I grew up in a small town known as Great Yarmouth in Norfolk, a seaside town, very pleasant to live in growing up but as you grow older, quite limited opportunities. So, it was challenging in that respect for me who I guess was quite ambitious growing up. And I grew up on a council estate which I often mention to people because I studied at Cambridge University and I think sometimes there’s this perception, “Oh, if you studied at Cambridge, your parents must be wealthy” or something which is absolutely not the case. My mom actually raised me singlehandedly. She couldn’t speak a word of English when she first arrived from Tunisia. It was actually tough for her bringing me up and financially it was a struggle. During my childhood I was very much focused on my education and using that as a tool for social mobility, I guess.

[0:02:56.7] Rob Hanna: Right, and did you always moving on from that sort of background, did you always want to go into the legal profession?

[0:03:03.4] Donya Fredj: I’d admit, I’m not one of those people that, you know, when I was younger, I said, “Oh, what, I really want to be a lawyer.” It’s not something that I had always wanted to do. I think it’s something that kind of came about later on actually. Probably, when I was around the age of 18. And so, when I was doing my A levels, the idea of law started to creep in. Honestly, I wasn’t very sure what I wanted to do growing up. One minute I wanted to be a banker, the next minute, I wanted to be like a TV presenter. Then I wanted to be a pop star. All these random dreams, ambitions that you have. So, only really as I got into the university, I started to think more seriously, okay, like what should I actually do with my life? And I would say, law almost feels like it was fate because there were number of events that happened in my life that almost kind of pushed me in the direction of law. I often say this kind of funny story where my mum was on a plane. I wasn’t with her. She sat next to this lady and they were having a conversation and this lady told my mum, “Your daughter wants a really great career with lots of travel and she should be a commercial lawyer.” She made it sound very, very glamorous, almost like Suits as well. That was one of the things that happened and initially made me kind of look into commercial law. I had lots of friends also looking into law at that time which encouraged me to do that and a lot of my friends telling me, “You’d be a great lawyer. Your skillset is really aligned with that of a lawyer.” So, all of that put together and then me doing my research and looking into it, that kind of led me down the path of law.

[0:04:29.6] Rob Hanna: Okay, you’ve obviously had a fantastic career thus far but let’s sort of go back a little bit because I understand having trained and qualified with the law firm which is now known as, as we all know, as Akin Gump in London after a year or so, you then started to move out to the Middle East. So, what sparked that motivation and tell us a bit about those experiences?

[0:04:49.9] Donya Fredj: You’re right, I trained with a firm now known as Akin Gump. I actually trained with Bingham McCutchen. Some people may know and then the London Office merged with Akin. So, upon qualification, I joined Akin Gump and I had a fantastic experience around three years. The firm had amazing opportunities including going to Tokyo was a common- I still have very fond memories of my time there. But in my heart, I guess I always wanted to work in the Middle East. I think, partly due to my background with my parents being Tunisian, I grew up speaking French and Arabic. I also decided to actually to study French and Arabic at Cambridge too. So, I have an interest in Middle Eastern culture and the history and so on. And I’ve always wanted to work abroad too. I think that initial interest in having an international career probably started when I was at university and I had the opportunity to have a year abroad and I spent a few months working in Paris and then studying into Uni as well. So, already that kind of started to entice me I guess into moving abroad and then I had my common in Tokyo as a trainee to six months which is an amazing experience. And so, for me the thing that was kind of always left on my list was I really want to work in the Middle East and see what it’s about. And so, when I qualified, really wasn’t planned actually at all, it was far too early in my career to think about the Middle East. I was very much focused on just trying to gather much experience as possible in London but again, call it faith, but I was just online and this opportunity came up. They were looking for a corporate lawyer in the Middle East, in Dubai. They didn’t mention the firm. There wasn’t really much details but I was kind of intrigued. So, I just sent an email in and it kind of went from there really when I ended up at Latham & Watkins so fantastic firm and been in Dubai now for five years which is much longer than I planned, I have to say.

[0:06:48.6] Rob Hanna:  Yeah, no, absolutely, and I think you’ve done a really, really, sort of, sterling job in explaining and articulating that. So, thanks because that’ll be really interesting to our listeners. I guess what would also be interesting to know as from those experiences, what are some of the main differences you experienced from working as a corporate associate in London, for a U.S. firm versus working as a corporate associate in Dubai?

[0:07:09.3] Donya Fredj: Yeah, that’s a good question. In terms of working environment, I would say perhaps working in Dubai is slightly more relaxed. I don’t know maybe it’s the good weather, the sunshine makes everyone feel happy. We all know that sometimes in U.S. firm there is a lot of high pressure, a lot of responsibility. So, naturally everyone can get a bit stressed, myself included. That still happens obviously in Dubai. Everyone works just as hard; I would say that because sometimes I think there is a perception and you have a lot of people who want to come out to Dubai because they think it’s going to be a lot of fun and glamour and there are elements to that. You can definitely have a nice lifestyle but if you’re going to be working for a law firm, not just a U.S. law firm, any law firm, you are going to be working hard. So, in that respect, there’s not huge difference. I still work long hours in Dubai, just as much as I did in London, but I would just say the office environment is just a little bit laid back. It’s very difficult to kind of pinpoint exactly what that difference is but it’s just a feeling I think everyone who works in Dubai kind of probably would know what I mean by that. In terms of work obviously when you’re working in the Middle East a lot of our clients or the work tends to come actually from the Middle East itself. So, we do a lot of work with Saudi for example. Saudi is blooming right now. There’s a lot of changes going on. And so, a lot of law firm in Dubai do get a lot of their work from Saudi, not exclusively from the UAE actually and of course, you’re working with your international offices as you would in London. So, when I was working in Dubai, I would work with the German office, with the London office. It’s still very much an international but I still very much know U.S. law firm, experience. It’s just a smaller office I guess generally being in Dubai, or probably anywhere in international office, unless you are in a massive city or hub generally be, or offices abroad, tend to be a little bit more smaller. So, you’re a little bit close knit, you know everybody, kind of get a family experience, maybe that’s why it feels a little bit more laidback. You know, everyone knows each other. It’s actually a really lovely environment. I would say probably from quality of work, you get fantastic work in the Middle East but generally speaking clients in London do tend to be a little bit more sophisticated. So, sometimes I have young lawyer or aspiring lawyer, they want to come to Dubai. I often advise them, I often say, “you know what, try and get some experience in London first because it would really help you in the long term with your career in the Middle East.” Because you can’t really beat the London experience in that respect.

[0:09:43.7] Rob Hanna: Yeah, moving on to languages. You speak multiple languages which is great I believe: English, Arabic, French. So, while working in private practice in Dubai, did you get a chance to use all of them, as I know a lot of lawyers for example, in Dubai are say not fluent in Arabic and French but still practice out there. So, if people less familiar, what sort of opportunities did you have to use your languages?

[0:10:04.2] Donya Fredj: Yes, I did have the opportunity to use my languages actually, not on an everyday basis. It certainly wasn’t regular but occasionally I did. I would say more so the Arabic than the French obviously, being based in Dubai, you’d probably expect that. So, most of the time, it would happen when I was doing due diligence for anM&A transaction. Most of the documents would be in English but sometimes we would have Arabic documents that could be the constitutional documents of the company, it could be a tenancy contract, whatever it is. So, I would sometimes need to review those documents in Arabic, at least the purpose of putting together a due diligence report. In terms of French, I remember using it a few times just to review contracts. Most of the time from a translation perspective to kind of translate the text for senior lawyer who needed to understand what the contract said, but French, not so much. I would say Arabic was definitely used more so.

[0:10:55.1] Rob Hanna: I think in terms then of moving on from your career from private practice, you then made a very exciting move, ready to get more emersed in the start-up world and I think this is where you’re providing legal advice to founders of emerging companies across the region and internationally and also, I believe again sort of contributing to the automation of start-ups legal expertise and things like that. So, do you want to tell us a bit more about that work and those experiences?

[0:11:22.2] Donya Fredj: Yeah, sure, like you said, I had an interest in the start-up world, in venture capital and so I found that the best way to immerse myself in that and to learn more about this area of law was to join a legal tech start-up, something I never thought I would do actually. When I was a trainee, you always have this vision of you’re going to join a firm and you’re going to stay there forever and you’re going to become partner. But I’ve come to realize that you can’t always plan your career like that and so the general approach that I’ve taken to my career is to go for opportunities where I can really learn. So, I very much focus on the learning and in this case, I really wanted to learn more about start-ups and VC world. So, I joined the legal tech start-up, still very much doing private practice work which is one of the thigs that appeal to me about the law, because I was still using the skills that I had acquired doing transactional work but it was just aimed at start-ups. So, advising start-ups on their funding rounds, their series seed round, their series A or series B and liaising with staff to kind of meet fantastic start-ups actually, lots of different industries, mainly tech. And also, meeting investors, very exciting stuff and also getting to work on a platform which is looking to automate the legal tech experience. So, in addition to the legal, I’m also kind of gaining some knowledge of the tech side I guess and what goes into product development, which is very interesting for me having come from private practice, very different. But lots of learning. So, yeah, I’ve definitely enjoyed that experience.

[0:13:00.5] Rob Hanna: For the lot of kind of future legal professionals listening in as well as current practicing legal professionals, what would you say from your experience as in what you’ve seen, some of them may be the key skills that are going to be required from sort of legal professionals in terms of what do think is some of the key things?

[0:13:17.7] Donya Fredj: So, going forward, I mean first of all, the same skills that we’ve always said to be honest will still be needed, commercial awareness, project management. None of those things are going to die. Law firms are still going to be looking for them. I guess now there is a focus for example, on… I wouldn’t say coding as such. There is a debate on whether or not lawyers need to code but at least I think maybe general awareness or general knowledge of tech and how tech is impacting the legal industry and how we can use it to improve the delivery of legal services. So, I think just having a general awareness of that is important and I would say adaptability is another skill that I think is very important. Again, law firms are having to adapt themselves, having to change to meet client demands and so, as lawyers you also need to be able to do the same whether that’s adapting to the use of technology or whether it’s just adapting generally. And you know, there are many ways in which we have to adapt as lawyers. You might have to adapt your practice area, for example, depending on the market. So, I think that’s definitely something and obviously with COVID having hit, people having to adapt to work from home, so I think just showing you’re versatile and flexible is always a skill that’s going to be beneficial. Otherwise, as I said, I think, the same skills as usual, commercial awareness, project management, teamwork, communication skills, all of that is still going to be required going forward.

[0:14:55.9] Rob Hanna:  Great stuff, and I completely agree. I think, there are just certain basic skills that are going to be needed, that they’re going to be here indefinitely and thanks for highlighting some of the additional ones. As I mentioned in the introduction, you keep yourself very, very busy. So, you must talk about other things that you’re involved with because I also understand you’re a lecturer and a faculty member of The Chancery Lane Institute for Professionals, so tell us more about that and your role there.

[0:15:20.3] Donya Fredj: So, I came across an opportunity to teach, initially the QLTS with Clip which is basically another start-up actually born out of Dubai. We have a lot of lawyers in Dubai who maybe qualifies abroad, mainly in an Arab country but also Australia for example, New Zealand or who may want to quality under English law for various reason. It also teaches the GDL and of course, now with the SQE coming into place, it looks like I’m going to end up teaching the SQE very soon as well. But I was asked if I would be interested and yeah, I thought why not. I wouldn’t say I ever though that I would teach either. My mom has been a teacher so I kind of thought ‘oh, let’s try it how.’ I’m always open new opportunities, I think that’s my approach and what I was surprised when I started the teaching was how much I enjoyed it. I really, really enjoyed engaging with the students, helping them to kind of reach the answers. You’re dealing with very intelligent people, lawyers so they are always asking you tricky questions and you have to think on the spot. So, it’s actually really, really great experience. And yes, I continue to do that on the side. I try to do it on the weekend, evenings where possible. So, I do keep myself busy, but I think if you enjoy what you’re doing, that’s the main thing. You don’t really ever get tired of it.

[0:16:44.7] Rob Hanna: Yeah, no, couldn’t agree more. You have got to be passionate about what we do and I know the other thing that you’re passionate about is your hit YouTube channel The Door to Law. So, do you want to tell us a bit more about that?

[0:16:55.5] Donya Fredj: Yeah, sure, so again, I don’t really know how this came about. It wasn’t planned but I just felt like I wanted to do something in addition to my day-to-day job. I think I’ve always taken that approach. If I think back to when I was younger at school aside from academics, I’ve always been quite creative and I played the clarinet and been in this dance club and so on. I think this was a way for me to use that creative side to have the opportunity to meet some fantastic people on The Door to Law. So, I interviewed incredible lawyers or just people who work in the legal industry, not necessarily – doesn’t have to be lawyer but anyone really in the legal profession, also interview start-ups and the aim is really just to highlight what’s going on in the legal industry right now. I actually interviewed one of the founders of the legal tech start-up that I’m at and we talked about the impact of technology on the legal industry for example, which is a big thing. I also did a video on the importance of adaptability in the legal profession which I mentioned earlier on. So, it is kind of tailored towards students but also people just more generally on the legal profession and I really, really enjoy it. Again, I love meeting people, networking and also in helping students as well. I get a lot of feedback from students saying they find the videos helpful and if I can help even just one person then that’s great.

[0:18:21.9] Rob Hanna: And I can vouch for that. I think it’s great. So, I definitely encourage our listeners to check of The Door to Law as well. And you really do no stop there because you are a big believer in giving back and you are mentor for GROW Mentoring. So, for those less familiar, what’s GROW Mentoring all about tell us more about your role with them?

[0:18:41.3] Donya Fredj: So, GROW Mentoring is a really fantastic initiative which actually I think I came across first of all on Instagram of all places. Social media is a great way of actually I think, now, if you look at social media right now, the legal industry is actually doing a lot of the students as well in particular I have to commend, there are a lot of law students doing amazing things on social media, and GROW Mentoring is an initiative that was born by someone who was actually currently a trainee at Allen & Overy and I reached out to him and he very kindly paired me with a mentee. So, the whole purpose of GROW Mentoring is to pair legal professions with aspiring lawyers and you dedicate at least, I think, one hour a month on a call with your mentee to advise them, guide them on whatever they need, whether it be help with application forms or interview techniques. Or just to kind of reassure them sometimes that they can actually go into legal industry. It takes a lot of hard work but it is possible. Sometimes it’s just the case of encouraging them and I absolutely love it. Again, it’s a way to give back in particular for me being somebody who did come from a quite modest background. I didn’t have parents that were lawyers or anything like that so it’s nice to be able to mentor students from similar backgrounds to me and kind of really encourage them and inspire them.

[0:20:09.2] Rob Hanna: Yeah, and I think you’re doing a cracking job of that. So, I guess if you could give maybe just one piece of advice to your junior self to put you on the spot a little bit, what would it be?

[0:20:19.1] Donya Fredj: Not to worry too much, I would say. I think we all put a lot of pressure on ourselves especially starting out, you know, we’re nervous. We don’t really know what it’s going to be like in the legal industry or any profession actually. When you come out of the university, you have really no clue until you start working. Everything is new and you are ‘I need to this or I need to do that.’ And really, you can’t plan things. Like I said, I ended up at tech start-up. I never thought I would do that. Things just have a way of working out really. So, I would say, work hard, do your best. Obviously, have goals, but also know that you can’t control everything and I think that Covid-19 has taught us that.

[0:21:01.8] Rob Hanna: Couldn’t agree more. I think, you know, people put a lot of mental pressure on themselves and sometimes just taking a step back and running your own race is really sage advice. So, thanks for sharing that. And just as we look to wrap up, you touched on that earlier actually when you’re mentioning Instagram. So, social media, how beneficial do you think that is for you as a legal professional and would you encourage other lawyers inhouse councils, people connected to the legal industry who are not embracing social media platforms to do so? 

[0:21:30.4] Donya Fredj: Yes, I would actually and there are lot of great accounts on Instagram but I would say also not to forget LinkedIn, which I think is a fantastic social media tool as well. Particularly for people within the legal profession who want to build a profile for themselves. I think the times that we’re in now, branding is very much in right now. I mean, maybe 20 years ago, not something lawyers would think about but right now personal branding is really important and very helpful as well for your own career development. If anything, just posting on LinkedIn helps you build some kind of community. I’ve met a lot of fantastic people. I came across you, Rob through social media. So, it’s just proof that you can meet some fantastic people, you can build your learning, your knowledge. So, I definitely encourage people to use social media and whatever they feel more comfortable with, whether it is LinkedIn or whether it’s Instagram, which I think tends to feel more to the student, but yeah, definitely embrace it. Don’t be scared of it.

[0:22:29.2] Rob Hanna: I’m a big advocate in particular for LinkedIn as many people know and yeah, I’m delighted that we managed to connect through the channels of social media as do a lot of our guest and followers. So, I’m a big endorser of that as well. So, as we sort of look to close Donja, outside of all of the things that you do, keeping yourself so, so busy, what do you do for down time? Do you have any quirky hobbies, anything you’d like to share?

[0:22:50.1] Donya Fredj:  Yeah, you know, I actually love to just get out in nature to be honest. Especially, as I get older, I love going for long walks in the countryside, being in the green. Obviously, being in Dubai, there isn’t too much greenery. I have to admit. Though often, when I’m choosing my vacation will be somewhere quite exotic either, you know, it could be in the middle of the forest or I love to be by the sea as well. Also, I really enjoy just spending time with my family to be honest, some of my friends. I think that’s really important. When you’re working and you’re so busy, you don’t always have time. I do like taking up various hobbies I’ll kind of try join a choir for a few months. I’ve done that in the past, I’ve joined dance clubs in the past. I’m always wanting to try something new. So, whatever is available, I’ll try it.

[0:23:41.8] Rob Hanna: Great stuff and yeah, I can definitely vouch for you taking on lots of hobbies and keeping yourself very active. So, listen, Donya, thanks a million for coming on. It’s been a real pleasure listening to your journey. It’s been very, very inspiring. I’m sure a lot of our listeners are going to take a lot from this discussion. So,wishing you, all your wider pursuits, and career, lots of continued success. But for now, from all of us on Legally Speaking Podcast, over and out.

[0:24:06.3] Donya Fredj: Thank you, Rob. Thank you so much.

[Audio Ends] [0:24:09]

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