His clients include everyone from Saddam Hussein to the Gandhis…
He’s saved millionaire tycoons Robert and Vincent Tchenguiz from going to jail, sued the UK government and won, and fired Tony Blair. Meet Sarosh Zaiwalla, the first Asian to set up a City law firm in London, 30 years ago.
Zaiwalla set up his Chancery Lane law firm at a time when only “white and English” law firms snapped up high-profile cases. But to make his mark in the cut-throat field of law, he neither changed his Indian accent nor anglicised his name.
His firm boasts a £3m turnover and a waiting list of clients. How has he managed that? We ask him…
In conversation with Shruti Tripathi
Q. First up, you fired Tony Blair?
[Chuckles] Tony is a very good friend. In fact, I just got a hand-written note from him, just now.
But back in the seventies, Tony was a young barrister working in a Labour chamber. Shipping in London was so upmarket at the time that even if you were white and English you would struggle getting in. I was lucky to act for the Indian High Commission and in those days there were a lot of small arbitration disputes.
Tony wanted to work on a shipping case and I instructed him. I told him this is the way I want you to argue the case and Tony said he would do it. But last minute, he did not do so.
Tony was really unprepared so I had to argue the case. So I sacked him for being unprepared.
We continue to be loyal friends and whenever we meet he enquires about the firm.
The good thing about England is that politicians who become big do not let professional decisions affect personal relationships. When they are wrong, they accept it. They aren’t vindictive.
Q. How did you set up a law firm in London?
I came to London because my father, Ratanshaw Zaiwalla, was the first ever Asian to become a solicitor in London. I came here thinking I’d qualify to be a solicitor and then go back to India but as luck would have it, I didn’t go back.
When I came here, London was very different. People were people in bowler hats, tailor coats and sticks. After I qualified, I started work with Stocken & Co, a maritime law firm. I then happened to meet senior arbitrator Cedric Barclay who ended up being a mentor. He said, “Sarosh, let me be frank with you. If you join a good firm, you’d 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 10 years and you’d still be in the same position.”
So in 1982, I decided that I am going to start a law firm in the City and set up Zaiwalla & Co. in Chancery Lane. There were other Asian law firms in Wembley and Southall that were taking on only crime and immigration cases. I thought if I start on my own, I need to beat them.
I then went to NatWest’s Tottenham Court Road branch and asked for a £10,000 overdraft. I had no secretary so my former girlfriends used to come and type for me.
One of the reasons I’m successful is that I’ve not anglicised my name. I found out that all those Asian firms who take up English names collapse because people don’t respect you. No tacky advertisements, that’s not my style at all.
We’ve got a waiting list of clients. We’ve got the Kazakhistan government, Mangolian government and Chinese government and more.
Q. Was it difficult as an Indian to start getting clients?
It was difficult but was also an advantage. There were no Indian solicitors in the City back then and the great advantage I had was the Indian High Commissioner at the time, Dr V A Seyid Muhammad, got in touch with me. When he heard a young Parsi [Indian religion] boy is starting a law firm with an Indian name, he called me and appointed me Indian High Commission solicitor.
He virtually took over the firm as I had no political contacts. I would spend half a day at the Indian High Commission and he would instruct me to do this, that and the other. I think he enjoyed working with me.
Q. How did you manage to make the Gandhis a client?
Once I became the solicitor for the Indian High Commission, work started coming in. There was a case for the Asian Games in Delhi and Rajiv Gandhi, then Prime Minister of India and the chairman of its organising committee. There was a company called Medco which had advertising contracts for the Games and they were suing for £5m for breach of contract in English Court. I won that case and Rajiv was pleased like anything and we continued to keep in touch.
Whenever any of Rajiv’s friends got in difficulty, like Sumati Morarjee, the first woman of Indian shipping, he would put them in touch with me. I still have all of Rajiv’s Christmas cards and letters. He invited me to his birthday parties and we got along really well.
It’s only through Rajiv Gandhi that Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan came to me when he got involved in the Bofors scandal.
Q. How did Vincent Tchenguiz become a client?
Vincent Tchenguiz publically says that I saved him from going to jail. It was my advice to him that he should sue the Serious Fraud Office. Everybody told him don’t do it but I said “be bold and sue them”.
[The Tchenguiz brothers] are good friends of mine and seek advice from me all time. Vincent and Robert are extremely good men and come from a family of great character. They are very loyal friends. If they’re your friends, they’ll stick by you.
Q. And your company acted for Saddam Hussein too?
Saddam Hussein’s ambassador contacted me and they wanted to sue the US before the second Gulf War. I met his associates three times but I refused to meet Saddam Hussein because of the way he’s behaved in the past. I met his team and suggested we should start proceedings in the English High Court or the International Court of Justice.
By the third meeting, their team said: “We’re ready to discuss settlement without war.” I then approached Tony Blair to discuss the matter but he wrote a letter to me saying “stay away”.
I am sorry that the war went ahead. We could have got rid of Saddam Hussein without war. We could have saved a million lives and almost $3.5 trillion.
Q. Your firm also represented Bank of Mellat, Iran’s largest private bank, and sued the UK government and won. Tell us about that case.
The bank had lost the case in the High Court and they approached us. We turned the case around and we won.
Britain’s Supreme Court found that the government was wrong to have imposed sanctions on Bank of Mellat over alleged links to Tehran’s nuclear programme.
I must give credit to the British judiciary who admitted that the UK government acted unlawfully and irrationally.
Q. Why did Dalai Lama get in touch with you?
I met him in person and he presented me with a shawl. He took my hand and put it on his heart and said: only you can help me.
Dalai Lama wanted me to mediate for conflicts between Tibet and China. I tried but it didn’t work out. We had two meetings but the Chinese weren’t interested. The Chinese feel that after Dalai Lama, the whole thing will die out.
Q. How did you get to know Benazir Bhutto?
Bhutto was first introduced to me by Tory MP Tony Baldry but nothing happened. Then one day I happened to be at an Asian shop in Kinghtsbridge to get Asian Age and I got a phone call from her associates who wanted me to go to Dubai immediately as Benazir was convicted by the Pakistani Court. She, on the other hand, wanted to be taken to London.
I went and brought her to London, we flew BA first class together at the time.
When we passed immigration she said: “You know Sarosh, when we pass immigration, I still get a pang in my stomach like the student days.”
I had dinner with her in London a month before she died. She was more interested in my personal life as I was single. I remember she once hosted a dinner at her place and got four single Parsi ladies to meet me. “Which one do you want to marry?” she asked me. I said: “None.”
Q. Finally, law comes across as an aggressive profession, but you’re quite polite and calm. How have you managed to survive the industry?
You don’t have to be aggressive in England, you’ve got to be a creative lawyer. You play with the law but you can’t play with the facts. As outrageous as this may sound, but it’s completely a misnomer that lawyers need to lie and be aggressive.
It’s very American to think that the field of law is aggressive. In London if you go to court, everybody is courteous. You need your mind and intellect and not shouting and screaming.