The Diri Law Firm was founded in Izmir in 1990 by Hayri Diri as an independent and full-service law firm. Thirty years later, the firm continues to serve both international and Turkish clients across a variety of different industries and sectors. But the firm is now led by Hayri Diri’s daughter, Nazan Diri Bal, who has rebranded and expanded it. With Nazan Diri Bal in charge, it is full speed ahead at Diri Legal.
Away from the Safe Haven
“My father is a well-known professional, especially in Izmir,” says Nazan Diri Bal about Hayri Diri, who continues to practice with the firm in western Anatolya. “He is a solution-oriented expert, and the team of the firm has built a strong reputation in Izmir since its establishment.”
Growing up, both Diri Bal and her sister Hamide Handan Diri were asked to help with the family business. “We would go the office or to the courthouse to do something very simple,” she says. “I think he wanted us to get familiar with the business and eventually enjoy it.” Enjoy it she did, and she says she never considered going into a field other than law. “I am glad that it happened like that,” she says, “because law graduates have many keys at hand, as they can do nearly everything. So it is a good option for a university education.”
During her years at Istanbul Bilgi University, Diri Bal spent every summer back at her father’s law firm in Izmir. Naturally, the plan was for her to rejoin the firm after graduating – but Diri encouraged his daughter to apply to other law firms for an internship. “My father wanted me to leave my comfort zone,” she laughs. “Because to be honest, I was a safety queen. He wanted me to really understand what the business world was, without being under the wings of my family.”
Following her father’s advice, Diri Bal ended up spending a summer under the supervision of prominent Turkish lawyer Mahmut Birsel in the Birsel Law Office’s Izmir base. “It was a good firm and a good choice for me back then,” Diri Bal says. Eventually, when the internship concluded in 2007, she moved back to Istanbul for her graduate studies, staying with Birsel in the firm’s office in that city.
Diri Bal ultimately spent over 11 years with Birsel – for many years regarded as among the very best firms in Turkey – learning both about the practice of law at the highest level and about the mechanics of a family firm. “Birsel was also a family business,” she says, “so in addition to the professional experience I gained there, I also developed a vision of how such a business may grow solidly.” In other words, she says, “I gained a strong understanding of the dos and don’ts in a family business.”
Finally, at the end of December 2017, Mahmut Birsel retired, closing the doors of the 94-year-old firm for the last time. Diri Bal knew what she had to do. “I thought it was about time for me to take over the family business,” she says. “There was already a 30-year legacy and I did not want it simply to fade away. So I decided to get behind the wheel.”
At the Helm
The tradition of children taking over family businesses is strong in Turkey. “Turkish people have very close family ties and strong family values, which keep them together,” Diri Bal notes. “I think this is the reason why many Turkish businesses are family-owned.”
Still, she insists, for a family business to grow, substantial planning and a shared vision with the new generation is key. “Strong next-generation leadership is really important,” she says. “And I think a family-centric culture really helps families and the next generation to keep businesses running.”
And, once she took charge, Diri Bal thought it was important to provide the Diri Law Firm with a new image and plan. “We needed an indication of a change in vision, because there is a second generation behind the wheel now, so we had to do something new.” And that, she says, “included new team members, so that one could really feel the new generation’s touch.”
The process did not come without difficulty. “Since we were establishing something very new, it was not easy to rebuild the team, and the corporate identity, and all that,” she says. “But once we had a system up and running then there were no challenges.”
Turkish Women in Their New Roles
Diri Bal is part of a new generation of women successfully taking over the reins of Turkish firms started by their fathers or grandfathers, including, among others, Sefika Pekin (at Pekin & Bayar), Eda Cerrahoglu Balssen (at Cerrahoglu), and Selin Ozbek Cittone (at Ozbek).
Indeed, the Turkish tradition of family-run companies and law firms, according to Diri Bal, blends well with women’s emancipation in Turkey, and although in previous decades there were few women in leadership positions in the country, the picture is gradually changing. According to her, “in the past people thought that female-owned businesses were not a good idea, but fortunately many successful women succeeded in overcoming this myth.” As a result, she says, “the role of women in society has completely changed in Turkey.”
Besides, she says, “being a woman lawyer is not a new phenomenon in Turkey, as in Istanbul alone the ratio of women to men is about 50/50.” (Indeed, according to the 2017 CEE Legal Matters CEE by the Numbers report, 63.99% of associates and 37.79% partners at major commercial law firms in Turkey are women, compared to only 44.71% of associates and 17.31% of partners in Austria).
A Clear Eye on the Horizon
Ultimately, Diri Bal says, the challenges of taking over at Diri Legal are significant – but, with the appropriate focus, manageable. “When you have a family business, you can’t forget that you have to share, you can’t keep everything to yourself, and you have to stay updated. Of course, you can stay in your shell, and if you choose to do that, then your business will only be as wide as your shell. But if you step outside your safety zone, your business will have a future. I think this is the key to running a successful family business.”
This Article was originally published in Issue 6.2 of the CEE Legal Matters Magazine. If you would like to receive a hard copy of the magazine, you can subscribe here.