In this memoir, Zaiwalla looks back on his passage to England at a time when diversity had barely begun to take root in England’s legal circles, to now leading a groundbreaking law firm. His is a story of a solicitor who made his way on his own terms, with creativity but without ever compromising on his values.While he still has many chapters ahead (a lawyer never retires after all), the ones that have concluded have created a storm in India, and feature a diverse cast including Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi, P.V. Narasimha Rao, V.P. Singh, the Hinduja brothers, the Dalai Lama, Benazir Bhutto, and Amitabh Bachchan. In this bold yet measured tale of trial and triumph, Zaiwalla tells all — as much as lawyer-client privilege permits of course.
About the Author
SAROSH ZAIWALLA is the founder of Zaiwalla & Co. Solicitors, based in London. With a succession of high-profile victories in the English courts for individuals and corporations from across the world, he has been regularly consulted by political, business and religious leaders. In 2002, he was honoured by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee on Indias National Law Day for his contribution to the field of international arbitration law.
Sarosh Zaiwalla, a quietly spoken Indian lawyer living in West Sussex, claims that he could have facilitated a deal between Hussein’s government and the West through former UK prime minister Tony Blair, avoiding a huge loss of human life.
At the time, Zaiwalla was in a unique position to act as mediator between the two sides. He had represented Hussein’s government in a legal case in 2001 and is also a personal friend of Blair. Zaiwalla was the future prime minister’s boss for a short time in the 1980s.
Iraqi government representatives told Zaiwalla that they were prepared to do a deal with the US government, and that “everything was on the table” — including the resignation of Hussein.
Zaiwalla sent letters (below) to Blair explaining the potential for a peaceful solution, but the offers in them were declined.
With the long-awaited Chilcot report on British involvement in the conflict due to be released on July 6, we caught up with Zaiwalla.
Zaiwalla was one of five boys raised in a Parsi family in Mumbai, India. His father, Ratanshaw Zaiwalla, was the first Asian to qualify in the UK as a solicitor. After qualifying, Zaiwalla senior returned to start his own small firm in India. From a young age, his son believed in the importance of change.
“My ambition was to become prime minister of India,” Zaiwalla said. “I’ve always believed in evolving the change, not in revolution.”
Coming from a middle class family, Zaiwalla was shocked by the wealth disparity in India. As a child, he insisted that he would eat with the servants.
After graduating from Bombay University, Zaiwalla moved to London to complete his legal training at Fleet Street law firm Stocken & Co. He arrived in the UK from India in 1980, with just £60 in his back-pocket.
Zaiwalla enjoyed his time at the firm, but, at the end of his training his mentor, Cedric Barclay, offered some advice: “You’re smart and good. In a big firm, a senior partner will take you for lunch at the end of your first year and say, ‘Good job, old boy.’ Every year, he’ll take you for lunch again and say the same thing. You will still be there while others are going forwards.”
Barclay told Zaiwalla that the colour of his skin would hold him back in the mainstream firms.
So, within seven days of qualifying, using a £10,000 overdraft from Natwest bank, Zaiwalla started his own firm: Zaiwalla and Co.
“It was a brave move, but I believed in changing things,” Zaiwalla said. “I had a silent courage and a clean heart.”
Zaiwalla’s first clients were the Hinduja brothers, who are now ranked second in The Sunday Times rich list, thanks to a staggering £13 billion fortune.
After meeting at a drinks party, one of the brothers asked Zaiwalla to join their business. Zaiwalla declined, saying that he wanted to focus on creating his own law firm. Nevertheless, when the brothers decided to set up a bank in Geneva, Zaiwalla was employed as the legal advisor and negotiator.
From there, Zaiwalla’s business grew. His firm employed 23 lawyers at its peak. Zaiwalla & Co.’s tactic was to undercut the rates of more established law firms, while producing work of equally high quality.
In the mid-nineties, Zaiwalla’s firm collapsed. His managing partner, a “nasty chap” who Zaiwalla did not want to name, embezzled around £1.6 million, hid the money, and then declared bankruptcy.
“I just trusted him blindly and carried on with the legal work,” Zaiwalla said. “I had given him the signing power, so I accept responsibility.” He added: “I had to downsize my firm. I had about 19 or 20 lawyers at that time. I had to get rid of all of them.”
After paying off all of his employees, Zaiwalla was on his own and in debt. He was forced to start again. “There’s one thing you learn starting a business from scratch: you know where the bottom is,” Zaiwalla said. Zaiwalla rebuilt his firm and now employs 11 lawyers, with an annual turnover of around £4 million.
One of Zaiwalla’s earliest employees was a young Tony Blair, whom he instructed as a barrister. However, Zaiwalla fired Blair after his first case.
“I don’t want to go into that,” Zaiwalla said. “We were all young. When I write my book, I’ll tell the whole story. Tony and I are still good friends.” (In fact, Zaiwalla told London Loves Business in 2014, it was because Blair failed to prepare a shipping case properly.)
Zaiwalla believes it was his relationship with Blair, as well as his reputation for representing international underdogs, which led Hussein’s government to reach out to him for legal advice.
“I believe that the Iraqi government knew that the war was coming and that they had no chance and they wanted to find a solution,” Zaiwalla said. He added: “I believe even Saddam would have gone and that would have saved the Iraq war.”
“They wanted to send a message that everything was open for discussion with the US through Britain,” he said. “Saddam would have stepped down. Everything was on the table. They knew there was no hope. They were putting on a brave face.”
Zaiwalla met with Blair in spring 2002, when the prime minister was working with US president George W. Bush to decide on the best course of action in Iraq.
This is Zaiwalla’s letter to Blair, written several months before Bush called for military action in September 2002:
In the letter, Zaiwalla explained his belief that the Iraqi side were looking to find an “amicable settlement.”
Downing Street sent this letter to Zaiwalla in response:
Zaiwalla was told that the Foreign office would respond to his letter. In turn, he was sent a long document justifying British involvement in the war in Iraq.
Nevertheless, Zaiwalla persisted, and sent another letter directly to Tony Blair:
On this occasion, Zaiwalla send a more detailed letter. In the letter, he said that “Iraq would be willing to compromise and agree to resumption of weapon inspections.”
The London lawyer added that he had gained experience in “off the record” communication with foreign governments, during two trips with former deputy prime minister Michael Heseltine to China.
Zaiwalla added: “All of us have a duty to achieve just objectives without shedding of lives wherever possible. I would be happy to facilitate a dialogue between Iraq and the West…”
Tony Blair’s office responded, declining the offer:
So why didn’t Tony Blair listen?
“I think by that time Tony had already made a commitment to president Bush,” Zaiwalla said. “Really it was a personal war between Saddam and president Bush.”
So, was the war illegal?
He said that there is “no doubt” that Iraq was an “unlawful war.”
I asked Zaiwalla if this made his friend Tony Blair a “war criminal.”
Zaiwalla denied this. He said: “It’s a matter of opinion. I don’t want to make any allegations.”
Zaiwalla is currently representing Bank Mellat in a case against the UK government, after Britain imposed sanctions on the bank in 2010 for alleged connections with Iran’s nuclear programme. In 2013, Britain’s Supreme Court said that the sanctions were wrongly imposed.
Now Zaiwalla is attempting to prove that the damages from the wrongful sanctions are worth $4 billion.
“We are going to get something out of it,” Zaiwalla explained, but the amount depends on the proven loss.
Zaiwalla praised this as example of the brilliant independence of the British justice system. He said that “no other court in the entire world” would make such a ruling against its own government.
Zaiwalla’s reputation went on to attract other international clients. In 2004, the Dalai Lama got in touch, hoping he could act as a mediator in the conflict between China and Tibet.
The Chinese decided against the process.
Zaiwalla has abandoned his childhood dream of becoming the prime minister of India.
“I will continue as I am,” Zaiwalla said. “I believe in life that one has to have a clean heart in order to one’s best in an honest manner.”