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In Conversation with Sarosh Zaiwalla, Founding Partner of Zaiwalla & Co Solicitors
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In Conversation with Sarosh Zaiwalla, Founding Partner of Zaiwalla & Co Solicitors

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More than thirty years ago, Sarosh Zaiwalla started his own law firm, Zaiwalla & Co Solicitors, in London. Focusing on shipping and arbitration matters, the firm now represents clients from around the world, including those in emerging markets such as Iran and Kazakhstan. In this e-mail interview with Bar & Bench, Sarosh Zaiwala speaks about his journey over the past three decades, why Indian arbitration is not attractive to foreign clients, and who really is opposing the entry of foreign law firms in India.

Bar & Bench: So in 1982, you opened a firm in London city, becoming the first Asian to do so. You also consciously chose not to anglicize your name. Looking back, would you have done it any other way?

Sarosh Zaiwalla: No, I would not have done anything differently. The fact that I retained my Indian name was one of my secrets to success. The English people have respected me for this as I am not shy to be known as being Indian and I am proud of my identity. Many other Indians have attempted to start law firms in the City of London with anglicised names but they soon disappeared.

B&B: Over the past three decades, you have built a large firm with clients in markets like Russia, Iran and Kazakhstan. Simple question – How?

Sarosh Zaiwalla: I have done this by simply providing a dedicated and honest service. London is an international centre for commerce and the City of London is known as the commercial capital of the world. Businessmen from all over the world come to London, and have found it more comfortable to deal with my firm than with an ‘establishment’ English firm. That is just as true whether the client is from India or elsewhere. I am particularly proud of the fact that the government-run oil corporations of the Peoples’ Republic of China placed considerable trust in my firm, instructing us for 5 major oil and gas arbitrations.

B&B: Do you see India emerging as a hub for either maritime law or arbitration?

Sarosh Zaiwalla: The frank answer is no. Unless the Indian legal profession and the judiciary self-regulates itself to maintain the highest standard of independence and integrity, I do not see India emerging as a hub for maritime law or arbitration.

B&B: What is your opinion of the Supreme Court of India’s judgment in the Balco matter? Do you think it has improved the state of arbitration in the country?

Sarosh Zaiwalla: In the past, the Indian Supreme Court was unfairly criticised by the international arbitration community for its decision in the Bhatia International case. It is sadly common when an Indian party is pitted against a multi-national company from a developed country, that the Indians fail for the wrong reasons in international arbitrations held overseas. What the Supreme Court has done in the past is only to ensure that there have been no miscarriages of justice. To ensure that justice can be done, there should at least be one round of judicial supervision, however that must be done quickly. After the Supreme Court judgment in the Balco matter the Court must maintain its vigilance over the arbitration procedure, keeping in mind the inadvertent or unconscious prejudice which sometimes occurs in international arbitrations where Indian parties are involved.

B&B: You have stated here, that there is an “international perception” that Indian arbitration is unfair. Do you feel that this perception is likely to change anytime soon?

Sarosh Zaiwalla: It is going to take time to change the perception that international arbitrations in India are not always fair. I have personally come across at least one instance where a retired Indian Supreme Court Judge was involved in some questionable conduct with my client, who was a party to that arbitration, forcing my firm to withdraw from acting for that client. No amount of law passed by the Indian Parliament is going to change this perception, only self-regulation by the Indian Arbitration community, ensuring the highest standard of integrity, will change this perception. That will take a few years.

B&B: Do you think that a majority of City firms are overpriced? What is your opinion of the use of reverse auctions while hiring law firms?

Sarosh Zaiwalla: The reverse auction will only work in the case of a matter that you might call is ‘famliar’ to the big city firms. These cases would normally be of a standard type with the same issues. It will not work for cases which depend on particularly unusual facts or where serious issues of law are involved.

B&B: How do you think the Indian legal market has evolved over the years? What are the areas where much improvement is required?

Sarosh Zaiwalla: The legal market in India’s big cities has evolved very well. Recently I sat as an Arbitrator in Mumbai in an international arbitration and I found the standard of both solicitors and counsel to be extremely high. There are a lot of good law firms mushrooming in the cities. One cannot say the same for smaller towns.

B&B: Do you see an increase in diversity in the British legal market?

Sarosh Zaiwalla: Yes, things have certainly changed insofar as diversity is concerned. Asian lawyers are now accepted and doing well. This was not the case when I started practicing in 1982. One of the reasons that I started on my own was because it would have been difficult for me to rise up the ranks in a big city firm as an Asian solicitor.

B&B: There is one school of thought that believes that the opening of the Indian legal market is being deliberately opposed by large Indian law firms? Do you think there is any truth in that?

Sarosh Zaiwalla: This is completely true. Most of the new Indian law firms which have emerged in the past 20 years owe their growth in size almost exclusively to work they receive from overseas law firms. If those overseas firms start practising in India, work will dry up for the locals. The real obstructers therefore to the entry of foreign law firms into India are the large Indian law firms. It is my view that if the Indian legal market is opened up, it would break the monopoly of those few large law firms and provide an opportunity for ordinary lawyers to enter the legal market for quality work.

B&B: Moving away from the law, you famously hired (and fired) former British PM Tony Blair. Why did you end up letting him go?

Sarosh Zaiwalla: Yes, I did hire Tony Blair for a shipping case concerning the vessel La Pintada. This case ultimately was decided in favour of my client, the President of India, by the House of Lords. Before the Commercial Court I had instructed Tony Blair because he and his senior were prepared to argue a certain legal point which I had sought to put forward which many other Counsels had refused to take. This was a test case for the Government of India, and it related to the issue of compound interest for late payment of debt. However, on the morning of the hearing, Tony Blair and his senior changed their minds and said that the legal issue which I was putting forward was bad and that they would not be arguing it. I insisted that I was not going to drop that issue. The case was heard by Mr Justice Staughton who thought I was right and ultimately by a unanimous judgment, the House of Lords confirmed my point to be correct. In the House of Lords I had appointed Nicholas Phillips QC in place of Tony Blair.

B&B: Lastly, any advice for those who wish to follow in your footsteps?

Sarosh Zaiwalla: It is correctly said that law is a jealous mistress, so only those who are prepared to be conscientious and work hard should join the legal profession. The most important thing to remember is that, contrary to popular belief in many countries, in the United Kingdom a solicitor or a barrister must never lie on behalf of his client. He can play with the law but he should never play with the facts. If these principles are followed, a new entrant in the legal profession will have every chance of becoming successful.