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Sarosh Zaiwalla, a most connected man: From working with the Dalai Lama to employing Tony Blair

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Named the first Asian to set up a law firm in the City of London, Zaiwalla had lots to talk about – namely world-famous cases, with some even seeing him work with the Ghandi family and Saddam Hussein. 

Now a regular commentator on topics such as Brexit, migration, sanctions and arbitration, Zaiwalla left India in 1975 to open his firm – and in the last three decades has secured billions for his clients, most recently representing Bank Mellat to prepare the largest ever damages claim ($4bn) against the UK government.

What led you to set up a law firm in London?

I followed my father to London. He was the first Asian to become a solicitor in the City, and was therefore instrumental in encouraging my move here. I thought I’d qualify to be a solicitor and then go back to India, but that didn’t happen. After I qualified, I started working with Stocken & Co, a maritime law firm, and met senior arbitrator Cedric Barclay. We soon became friends, and he became a mentor. He said to me: “Sarosh, let me be frank with you. If you join a good firm, you’ll do well. At the end of the first year a senior partner will take you for lunch and say, ‘good work, old boy!’ but fast-forward ten years and you’d still be in the same position.”

As a result, I started Zaiwalla & Co in Chancery Lane in 1982. There were other Asian law firms in Wembley and Southall that were taking on crime and immigration cases at the time, so I thought I’d better make sure I beat them. So I took the plunge and went to the NatWest branch on Tottenham Court Road, asking for an overdraft worth £10,000. I had no money for a secretary, so my former girlfriends used to come in and type for me. 

Interestingly, I think one of the reasons I’ve been successful is that I haven’t anglicised my name. Through research, I realised many Asian firms who had taken up English names had collapsed because people didn’t respect them. I wasn’t interested in changing the name, packaging, or tacky adverts – it isn’t my style at all. So here we are, and we’ve got a waiting list of clients. We’ve got the Kazakhistan government, Mongolian government and Chinese government waiting, to name a few.  

As an ethnic minority during that time, did client acquisition become a problem?

It was a challenge, but one I eventually learned to appreciate. I was essentially the only Indian solicitor in the City back in those days, and much to my advantage Dr VA Seyid Muhammad, the Indian High Commissioner at the time, contacted me. When he had heard that a young Parsi boy had started a law firm in London with an Indian name, he called me up and appointed me Indian High Commission solicitor. He virtually took over the firm as I had no political contacts back then. I would spend half a day at the India High Commission and he would instruct me to do various tasks – I think he enjoyed working with me.

Your firm represented Iran’s largest private bank, Bank Mellat and you sued the UK government and won – tell us about that case.

Sure – Bank Mellat had lost the case in the High Court by the time it approached us. We took over, turned the case around and eventually won. This was an important case for us because it was quite groundbreaking. The legal profession is all about precedents – finding them, following them and sometimes setting them. Many countries were enacting sanctions without much accountability, whereas they should be taken seriously, especially given the profound effect they can have. 

Winning this case sets a precedent – it says that you better be sure your justifications for imposing sanctions on another country/entity are good enough, or else they can be overturned. This is how the law should work, and I’m proud we won the case. Britain’s Supreme Court found the government’s sanctions were falsely imposed on Bank Mellat, over alleged links to Tehran’s nuclear programme. However, I do have to give credit to the British judiciary for admitting the UK government had acted irrationally and unlawfully. 

Given how much debate has been going on about the case, can you tell us anything about Polonskiy vs Dobrovinsky?

Yes, Polonskiy vs Dobrovinsky is particularly interesting – much more so than the consonant laden name would suggest. Polongskiy is a very wealthy Russian property magnate who was imprisoned in 2013 in Cambodia under suspicion of assaulting and illegally detaining the crew of his yacht. He apparently had limited access to emails or phones in prison and was aware that he couldn’t manage his property empire, so he instructed his lawyer – Dobrovinsky – to sell it all for him. 

Polonskiy actually claims that Roman Abramovich was agreed upon as the person to buy his business – whereas in reality the would-be purchaser of his empire ended up being a man he didn’t “trust”.  Much money was lost, and Polonskiy sued his lawyer, Dobrovinsky – who asked me to represent him in court. Cases like this, with Russian oligarchs, Cambodian prisons and property empires, are never boring!

Read on to find out about his experiences with Tony Blair.

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