Business Law & Compliance

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

14 min read

11 July 2016

Recently named in GQ’s "100 Most Connected Men 2016", we met up with Sarosh Zaiwalla, founder and senior partner at Zaiwalla and Co, who not only employed a young Tony Blair, but also worked with the Dalai Lama and saved the Iranian-British entrepreneurial Tchenguiz brothers from jail.

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.

So, Tony Blair…

(Laughs) Yes, Tony is a good friend – we still speak now from time to time, though less than we used to. I met him whilst working for the Indian High Commission in the eighties. He wanted to work on a shipping case and I instructed him.

The Gandhis were a client of yours – how did that come about?

After becoming solicitor for the India High Commission, work started to flow in. There was one case for the Asian Game in Delhi and Rajiv Gandhi – he was PM of India and chairman of the Games’ organising committee. A company called Medco, which had advertising contracts for the Games, was suing for $5m due to breach of contract in English Court. Once I had won the case, Gandhi was really pleased, and we stayed in touch after. 

As time passed, whenever any of Rajiv’s friends faced legal difficulty – Sumati Morarjee, the first woman of Indian shipping, was one such person – he would direct them to me. We developed a great relationship – I still have all of his Christmas cards and letters, and we got along so well he invited me to his birthday parties. In fact it was only through Rajiv Gandhi that Amitabh Bachchan, the Bollywood star, came to me when he got involved in the Bofors scandal.

And Vincent Tchenguiz?

He always says that I saved him from going to jail. I advised him to sue the Serious Fraud Office when no one else would. I told him to be bold and sue them, and he followed my advice. The Tchenguiz brothers are good friends of mine and they still seek guidance from me often. Vincent and Robert are both extremely good men who come from a family of great character – they’re both very loyal, so if they call you a friend they will stick by you.

Your company acted for Saddam Hussein also?

Yes, Saddam Hussein’s ambassador contacted me saying they wanted to sue the US before the second Gulf War. I met with his associate three times, but refused to meet with Saddam Hussein because of his past behaviour. I suggested to his team we should start proceedings in the English High Court or the International Court of Justice. By the third meeting, their team had said they were ready to discuss settlement without war, so I approached Tony Blair to discuss the matter. Blair wrote me a letter telling to me “stay away”, and the rest – to borrow a cliché – is history.

I am truly sorry that the war went ahead anyway. We could have ousted Saddam Hussein without a war, and saved trillions of dollars – and more importantly millions of lives – in the process.

Tell us about when you met with the Dalai Lama.

I got to meet him in person and he presented me with a shawl. He took my hand, put it on his heart and said: “Only you can help me”. The Dalai Lama wanted me to mediate for conflicts between Tibet and China. I tried, but things didn’t work out – the Chinese just weren’t interested. The Chinese feel, and felt, that after Dalai Lama, the whole thing will peter out.

How did you get to know Benazir Bhutto?

I was first introduced to Bhutto by Tory MP Tony Baldry, though nothing really came of that meeting. Then one day I happened to get a phone call from her associates, wanting me to head out to Dubai immediately. Bhutto had been convicted by the Pakistani Court, and wanted to be taken to London. We were both soon on a first class flight back to London. Passing through immigration, she said to me: “You know, when I pass immigration, I still get a pang in my stomach like the student days.”

I had dinner with her a month before she died, in London. She was more interested in my personal life as I was single at the time. She once hosted a dinner at hers and invited along four single Parsi ladies to meet me. “Which one do you want to marry?”, I remember she asked me. “None,” I said. 

And lastly: law comes across as an aggressive profession, but you’re polite and calm. 

You see, you don’t have to be aggressive in England – you have to be creative. You can play with the law but at the end of the day you can never play with the facts. As outrageous as this may seem, it is a complete misnomer that lawyers need to lie and act aggressively. It’s quite an American notion, to think that the field of law must be aggressive. In London, if you go into a courtroom, everyone is courteous. You need intellect and clarity of thought, not shouting and screaming.

Meanwhile, for a long time, the legal sector has had a set way of working that has delivered results and few firms have deviated far from traditional processes. Now the industry seems to have had a change of heart.