The Life: Sarosh Zaiwalla, the first Asian lawyer to open a firm in the City of London, talks about being hired by the Dalai Lama - and employing Tony Blair.
Arbitrator worked for China and Dalai Lama
Sarosh Zaiwalla is the first Asian lawyer to set up a law firm in the City of London. The native of Mumbai was recently in Dubai for an arbitration case. Here he talks about his career and hiring Tony Blair to work for him.
You set up your firm in 1982. What difficulties did you encounter?
The City of London, unlike the rest of the UK, has got an old boys' culture so it's not very easy to break in. That's one of the biggest challenges I had to overcome. As you go on, people realise you are not a bad person, they accept you. But in the beginning there was a block, a glass ceiling. I think I have been able to contribute to the City becoming more diverse.
Were there advantages too?
I was the only [Asian] person so the judges and everyone got to know me. I got a lot of support from locals. I did come across an [occasional] oddball who was racist. But the important thing is not to get upset about it, and just move on because basically people are very nice.
You went on to win some heavyweight clients.
We started out by doing maritime law then we became the solicitors for the president of India, then the Chinese government. Now we do corporate law and we are general solicitors. We also do international arbitration - that's our real speciality. We've got 18 lawyers now but we don't want to get bigger because then you have to charge clients more.
And the Dalai Lama hired you at one point?
Because, I was the first non-white solicitors firm, the Chinese sponsored a trip for me to go to Beijing in 1991. It was just sort of opening up so they sought my advice on how to open up the profession. Then I started representing the Chinese government. I had a very close relationship with the Chinese government. The Dalai Lama contacted me and he said: "I know only you can help me". In China you can practise religion but it must not be controlled from abroad. I said the Dalai Lama doesn't want independence; why don't you let him come in and he can practice his Buddhism? But they are nervous about the Dalai Lama.
What do you think accounts for your success?
I am not part of the old boys' club so I can speak out. Many English and Europeans have their old-fashioned and colonial approach. It's changing but many times clients come to me from the Middle East - and that's why they appointed me as an arbitrator - because I understand the culture.
And Tony Blair worked for you?
We are contemporaries. I was lucky enough to do maritime work and he wanted to get into maritime work so I instructed him in a case. The only time his name appears in the law report is for our firm; I tease him about it. Last October, he met me for a cup of tea at his office, just like an old friend. Whenever I met him as prime minister he was always asking how the firm was doing.