How Karl Tabbakh's return to Canada helped him lead with a global focus at McCarthy Tetrault

One of the Top 25 Most Influential Lawyers, he led the firm in Quebec after time in the Middle East

How Karl Tabbakh's return to Canada helped him lead with a global focus at McCarthy Tetrault
Karl Tabbakh

Having lived and worked in the Middle East for many years, Karl Tabbakh is well-suited to promoting Canada as a great place to invest.

“Attracting foreign direct investment … is so important for not only our economic development but also to develop critical aspects of our entire economic ecosystem,” says Tabbakh, who is McCarthy Tetrault LLP's regional managing partner for Quebec, co-leader of the firm's international & business strategy and a member of its senior leadership team.

Tabbakh is not just promoting Canada through his client work. He is also the chairman of Invest in Canada, a government agency responsible for promoting Canada to global investors.

He brings decades of international and business experience to that role, and his global experience began well before his professional career. A Syrian native, Tabbakh immigrated to Canada as a child to escape insurrection.

“My parents wanted to give us a better life,” he says. “This is why we left and moved to Canada when I was 10. Coming to a new country, learning the language, learning French, learning English, but also not really having mentors to look up to, there wasn't a lot of safety net.”

Tabbakh was drawn to the legal profession despite its lack of prestige in Syrian culture. “If you wanted to study, you grew up to be a doctor; otherwise, you [went] into business or [engineering]. But no one wanted to be a lawyer because in countries where the rule of law doesn't exist, being a lawyer is not a very prestigious profession.”

Despite having little direct exposure to the profession, Tabbakh graduated from Osgoode Hall Law School in the mid-1990s. He then joined McCarthy Tetrault in Montreal and realized he wanted to be a corporate dealmaker.

“I was always very interested in business, my parents being merchants and entrepreneurs,” he says.

Tabbakh had a stint at Clifford Chance in London in the early 2000s but eventually joined the McCarthys partnership.

Tabbakh returned to the Middle East in 2008 when he joined DLA Piper to help them grow in the region. “Dubai was expanding, and that part of the world was expanding. [My wife and I] saw that as a great personal and professional opportunity that we wanted to capitalize on,” he says.

“It was a great challenge to be part of expanding an international law firm that had the ambition to be the biggest law firm in the world and help them do that in the Middle East.”

After leading DLA Piper’s Middle East corporate team, Tabbakh helped found Alioth Capital, a private investment and corporate advisory firm focusing on small and medium-sized businesses, emphasizing the Canadian, Middle East and North African markets.

He spent seven years in the Middle East, including as chairman of the Canadian Business Council in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates.

“It was a great experience, witnessing the growth of that area and witnessing an Arabic country that was using its wealth to actually create a modern society,” says Tabbakh.

Despite the opportunities the Middle East provided to Tabbakh, he now had young children, and he and his wife wanted them to grow up in Canada to be close to their extended family. The partners at McCarthys invited Tabbakh to return to Montreal with his broadened international and client-side experience.

“I jumped right back into it, and then six months later, they said, ‘Well, how about you become managing partner too?’ I said, ‘Okay, I'll do that as long as I can keep practising.’”

Tabbakh quickly discovered, unlike some lawyers thrust into leadership positions, that he loved management.

“I always say that managing professional services must be one of the most rewarding jobs because you're dealing with super smart, accomplished, and driven people.”

For the past two years, Tabbakh oversaw the transformation of McCarthy Tetrault's Montreal office, championing a state-of-the-art conference and work centre vision, and helping drive people back to the downtown core. The firm decreased lawyers’ office sizes, making them more uniform with ergonomic desks. Communal meeting spaces became more of a focus.

“People can feel that this is not just an office you go work at, but this is a place you go and meet your colleagues and have not only good conversations, good cooperation, opportunities, but also a place where you can go and have fun.”

True to his partners’ promise when he rejoined McCarthys, Tabbakh still maintains an active M&A practice. He highlights recent work helping his client, Privian, with its expansion strategy, including over 10 M&A transactions in Canada and globally.

“Privian is a great client of the firm’s. It's been a great success story here in Quebec. It's a firm that's been growing through a very smart acquisition strategy.”

In addition to his role with Invest in Canada, Tabbakh was elected chair of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in 2021, where he led its strategic planning, pushing the organization to adopt a diversity and equity strategy.

His personal and professional connection to the Middle East also means he speaks from experience when broaching complex topics like the recent Israel and Hamas conflict, which has divided the legal community in Canada.

Tabbakh says although McCarthy made a public statement after the Oct. 7 attack, it was difficult to navigate with so many emotions and people at the firm personally impacted by the conflict.

“I think we always have to be very careful. Because governments and diplomatic industries have many people who study these things, who do this for a living, who are struggling themselves to issue statements. So, law firms are not equipped to be able to do that …. What we focused on doing is making sure that our people get the support that they need, that we continue to drive a culture of diversity and culture of inclusiveness, a culture where everyone feels that they can bring their entire selves to work.”

Tabbakh has also set aside time for pro bono and charity work. He was actively fundraising to support victims of the Syrian earthquake, for example, helping to arrange the firm’s bono assistance so donations could be sent directly to aid groups in the country while complying with the applicable regulatory regime.

“When you roll up your sleeves and do things, and you get involved, and you give your time, it drives nice [results]. It's a very rewarding experience. We're lucky to live in a country that allows us to do that.”

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