Youssef Daoud, Counsel at Gaillard Banifatemi Shelbaya Disputes
“I love the adversarial nature of disputes, the strategic decisions one must make, the room for creativity we have as lawyers, and the challenge of convincing the arbitrators of one’s client’s case.”
You were born and raised in Egypt and, at the age of 21, you chose Paris to pursue your law studies. Why?
I suppose my choosing of Paris is due to the longstanding connection I have had with France and the French language. France has a history of exporting its language and culture and there are consequently a great number of French schools abroad. I attended the Collège de la Sainte Famille, one of the oldest French schools in Cairo that was founded by the Jesuits in the 19th century.
Funnily enough, my parents are actually not francophones, so I did not grow up speaking French at home. The reason why my parents chose to enrol me in that school was that it was one of the best schools in Egypt. The problem, then, was that my mother (who only spoke a little bit of French) could only help me with my homework until I was 7 years old, by which point I had already learnt more French than she had. That meant that I was pretty much on my own when it came to homework, but that probably helped me become independent very early on. That link with the French language and French culture only grew stronger over the course of my studies and led me naturally to move to Paris to pursue my studies in law.
So moving to Paris for your Master’s degree was the natural thing to do?
My choice to pursue a Master’s degree in Paris was influenced by my choice of university at the undergraduate level.
I undertook my legal studies at a branch of Sorbonne University (Paris I) in Cairo that is specialised in international business law. This program allows students to follow the French law curriculum as it is taught in France, in addition to a number of Egyptian law courses. This enabled me to obtain two law degrees, one delivered by Sorbonne University and one by Cairo University. So studying in Paris at a postgraduate level was for me an opportunity to further my knowledge of French and international law and build on what I had acquired in my undergraduate degree.
In fact, I understand that French and Egyptian laws are closely connected, is that so?
Egyptian law is very heavily influenced by French law. If you understand French law, you‘ll understand Egyptian law. Even if sometimes certain specific rules may differ, the logical structure is essentially the same.
This relationship between different legal systems has proven extremely useful to me in my practice of international arbitration. One of our multiple niches are disputes involving the Arab world and, thus, the laws of various Arab countries. The civil codes of most Arab countries are based on the Egyptian Civil code, including those of the Gulf region (the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Oman, with Saudi Arabia having followed path since the enaction of the Saudi Civil code in June 2023); this goes as well for other Arab countries such as Syria, Iraq and Libya. The civil codes of these countries are very similar to the Egyptian Civil code, which in turn is heavily influenced by the French Civil code. So my knowledge of French and Egyptian laws has enabled me to seamlessly navigate the laws of many Arab countries.
So, you arrived in France as a student in 2008?
Yes, to follow a joint program between Sorbonne University and Sciences Po. It was actually very interesting because around 30% of the students came from Sorbonne University, 30% from Sciences Po, and 40% from U.S. universities such as Columbia, Cornell, etc.
How was it?
It was very interesting for me to observe certain differences between U.S. and French students, which probably reflect the different approaches to legal education in both countries. In France, you are expected to be humble and defer to your professor, whereas in the U.S. a lot more emphasis is placed on self-expression and building confidence. As a result, U.S. students rarely hesitated to answer questions or comment on the professors’ lectures, while the French students, even if they often had very interesting things to say, were inclined to speak much less. Of course, I cannot escape generalising a bit in making such a statement, but this really is reflective of my experience.
What about you?
I was somewhere in the middle (laugh)! I spoke more than the French but less than the Americans!
At that time, did you know you were going to work in arbitration?
I wouldn’t say that, no. My career moved towards international arbitration gradually. I had the opportunity to intern with a general practitioner where I was exposed to cases involving commercial law, civil law and criminal law, all before State courts. My first internship in international arbitration came later on, following my Master’s degree, at White & Case.
What do you mean by “gradually”?
By the time I finished my Master’s degree, I had come to the conclusion that I wanted to become a litigator. That left me with two options: I could either practice before State courts or in international arbitration. At that time, I was interested in both options. That said, given that I spoke three languages and had studied in depth two different legal systems (the French and the Egyptian), I was naturally swayed by arbitration, which often attracts more international profiles because it allows them to put all of their skills to good use.
I can now say, with the benefit of hindsight, that I am very glad that things worked out the way they did. International arbitration tends to allow for a very in-depth study of cases, which I really enjoy. Generally speaking, arbitrators tend to devote more time to cases than State courts. Hearings also tend to be lengthy (often spanning over 2 weeks or even longer) and allow for in-depth arguments to be pleaded by both sides. I suppose international arbitration appeals to my meticulous, and even somewhat obsessive, nature. It’s more about quality and less about quantity. I prefer to work on fewer cases and know them inside out than to work on 50 cases superficially.
You put “advisory work” on the side but it’s now very present in your work, isn’t it?
Indeed, I do both advisory work and disputes. We often provide advice to our clients before they decide to resort to international arbitration. We have also been involved in many disputes that ended up settling and so we advised our clients on the terms of these settlements. These settlements can often get very complex and end up becoming intricate transactions that not only settle a dispute, but also involve agreeing new contracts or extensive amendments to existing contracts.
Can you give us an example?
We’ve had several such examples at Gaillard Banifatemi Shelbaya Disputes.
For instance, we represented EGAS (the Egyptian natural gas holding company) in three arbitrations that were brought by a Spanish company called UFG (Union Fenosa Gas) as well as a company called SEGAS (Spanish Egyptian Gas Company). UFG and SEGAS claimed over an aggregate US$ 4 billion in damages in these three arbitrations in relation to the operation of a gas liquefaction plant located in Damietta, Egypt. We won all three cases for EGAS. The biggest case of the three involved claims of around US$ 3.5 billion, and we managed to secure a victory for EGAS based on a novel argument relating to Article 26 of the ICSID Convention. We convinced the arbitrators that, because UFG had brought another (fourth) arbitration against the Egyptian Government in relation to the same facts and the same loss, it had waived its right to sue EGAS and so its claims had to be dismissed.
Even though we had won all three arbitrations for EGAS, the arbitration that UFG started against the Egyptian Government (in which our firm was not involved) ended in UFG’s favor. The parties wished to settle the dispute and, because the arbitration UFG started against the Egyptian Government related to the same facts as those in which we represented EGAS, a global settlement of all disputes was necessary, so we ended up advising both EGAS and the Egyptian Government on that global settlement that gradually became more and more complex and ended up involving over 40 contracts that governed a plethora of issues such as the restart of operations of the gas liquefaction plant, the modification of the shareholding structure of SEGAS, as well as amendments to a gas sale agreement, two gas liquefaction agreements and the rules relating to the allocation of LNG produced by the liquefaction plant among the owners of the gas.
That’s a good example of how advisory work and disputes are often interrelated. Having experience with disputes is very useful when drafting a contract because it gives you knowledge of what kind of problems often arise from poorly drafted contractual provisions, such that you are able to anticipate these problems when advising your client on contract negotiations and to draft contracts in a way that best serves your client’s interests, having in mind that a dispute may potentially arise in the future and the contract that is being drafted may end up before a panel of arbitrators.
On the other hand, having experience with contract drafting is also very useful when acting in arbitrations because it gives you a very good command of contract interpretation and bolsters your ability to come up with creative arguments to win the case for your client.
So I have been lucky enough to gain a lot of experience with both disputes and advisory work. But ultimately what I really, really love is the disputes aspect of our work!
Ah! That was my next question!
Of course! I love the adversarial nature of disputes, the strategic decisions one must make, the room for creativity we have as lawyers, and the challenge of convincing the arbitrators of one’s client’s case.
Is it something that becomes obsessive?
I would say “passionate” rather than obsessive, although after working on a case for a significant amount of time, you do end up knowing it by heart and it’s always on your mind, you’re always thinking about it.
There is an interesting detail in your resume: In 2014, after several years at Shearman & Sterling, you took two years off to study philosophy and economics… Can you tell us more?
I had always felt that I needed to study a bit more, and not necessarily law. Of course, these two years were very gratifying for me on a personal level. But I can tell you now that they also were very useful to my career as a lawyer.
With economics, the connection to my work as an arbitration lawyer is pretty straightforward. Our cases usually raise complex economic questions, so having an economics background helps me understand all aspects of the case and allows me to bring a more comprehensive expertise to our clients.
When it comes to philosophy, the impact on my career has been more indirect but no less significant. First of all, it helped improve my theoretical legal skills and my ability to handle abstract legal concepts. The level of abstraction required in philosophy is such that even the most complex and abstract legal questions become easy in comparison. Second, studying philosophy teaches you to handle concepts and details with extreme precision (especially subjects such as epistemology or the philosophy of science which, under the influence of the school of analytic philosophy, place a lot of importance on precision and analysis) and at the same time see the big picture (especially subjects such as legal and political philosophy which remain heavily influenced by the school of continental philosophy and thus tend to have a more holistic approach). These two skills – precision and the simultaneous capacity to see the bigger picture – are crucial to a lawyer. Indeed, as the saying goes, the devil is often in the detail; at the same time, one must never lose sight of the big picture.
Interview by Valentine Faure, journalist