Sarosh Zaiwalla and Dalai Lama
Sarosh Zaiwalla and Dalai Lama (handout)

American Lawyer chief European correspondent Chris Johnson meets regularly with senior figures in the legal world at their favorite breakfast joints to chew over the industry’s tastiest talking points. Johnson’s guest this week is Sarosh Zaiwalla, the first Asian lawyer to establish a law firm in the City of London. On the menu: Iran’s nuclear program, Gandhi, and how to make yourself unpopular.

Sarosh Zaiwalla has to be the most likeable unpopular person I’ve ever met. The Indian-born founder of Zaiwalla & Co, an 18-lawyer boutique that he claims in 1982 became the first City of London law firm to be established by an Asian lawyer, Zaiwalla is charming and cheery, a broad smile permanently fixed to his face throughout our 90-minute meeting. He’s also quite the raconteur, with a seemingly endless collection of colorful anecdotes about representing members of the Gandhi family and hiring a young barrister named Tony Blair. Personable as he is, though, professionally he has made a habit of taking on cases that have bent the noses of more than a few very important people out of shape.

Zaiwalla once regularly represented the Chinese government, for example, handling major international arbitrations for state-owned entities such as the China National Petroleum Corporation, and even advising China on how to develop its national legal profession. But in 2000, he scotched that relationship by accepting a personal request from China’s public enemy number one, the Dalai Lama, to try to broker the exiled spiritual leader’s return to Tibet. Similarly, Zaiwalla established himself early in his career as one of the main outside counsel to the Indian government, until he agreed in the early 1990s to represent Indian film star Amitabh Bachchan and his brother following their implication in the so-called “Bofors” political corruption case. He hasn’t worked for the Indian government since.

“If I think that something needs to be done, because it’s the right thing to do, I’ll do it,” he says. “I have never been concerned about my own interests. I don’t mind if that means I don’t get invited to drinks or people don’t want to talk to me—there is much more to life than just earning money.”

Zaiwalla’s latest case will shortly see him suing the U.K. government for more than £500 million ($820 million) in damages on behalf of an Iranian bank whose assets were frozen due to its alleged financing of Iran’s nuclear program. Bank Mellat, Iran’s largest private bank and part-owned by the Iranian government, was placed on a blacklist in 2009 by the British government that led to a freezing of its assets across the European Union.

In what could prove a precedent-setting case that has implications for Western sanctions against Iran, Zaiwalla last year successfully fought to have both the British and European sanctions against the bank overturned, with the U.K. Supreme Court ruling in June that the government’s had “singled out Bank Mellat without rational grounds” and that its case was based upon “misconceptions about the facts”.

“It speaks volumes of the British justice system that a court would decide against the British government in favor of a bank from Iran—a country that is perceived to be hostile to the U.K.,” says Zaiwalla. “I don’t think that could happen in any other country—even the United States.”

We’re meeting on a wet a dreary morning at The Dorchester—perhaps the most upmarket of the many upmarket hotels on London’s Park Lane. Zaiwalla is a regular diner at the Dorchester, as his firm’s sole U.K.-based client, Iranian-born entrepreneur and property tycoon Vincent Tchenguiz, has an office just down the road.

The Promenade, as the hotel’s dining area is known, is essentially a grand hallway that runs 150 feet or so from the lobby to an oval leather bar, the white marble floor flanked by gold-topped marble pillars. Inoffensive lounge jazz plays in the background as well-heeled patrons natter at tables adorned with silver cutlery, green china crockery and embroidered napkins. The place positively hums with money.

Zaiwalla, his top button undone and a red Hermes tie hanging loosely around his neck, looks like a tired worker at the end of a long day, despite the fact it’s barely 9 A.M. He asks for his favorite egg sandwiches—he clearly is a regular—only to be told that they aren’t served until lunchtime. Only slightly crestfallen, he instead orders scrambled eggs with a side of toast, and a pot of Earl Grey tea, which he drinks black.

After a Christmas of almost impossible excess—I put on nine pounds in as many days—I opt for the “Dorchester Healthy Breakfast.” It proves a surprisingly substantial meal for something billed as a lighter option. I start with a bowl of fruit and seed-packed Bircher muesli, served with natural yogurt; move on to a huge and piping hot egg white omelette with herbs and mushrooms; before finishing with whole wheat toast and a plate of blueberry and carrot mini-muffins, which are delicately spiced with ginger. I polish off the lot.

Zaiwalla says the next step for Bank Mellat is to file a damages claim with the High Court, which he plans to do on February 7. (The High Court is the U.K.’s highest civil court of first instance; the Supreme Court is the country’s highest appellate court.) Zaiwalla will not be drawn on the exact value of the claim—a strict embargo from the client prevents him from doing so—but he says it will be “much more” than the £500 million ($820 million) that has been reported in the press. He claims it will be the first time that an Iranian plaintiff fighting against sanctions in Europe has reached the stage of claiming damages after a top court sided in its favor.

“It’s a brave step for Bank Mellat to take on the U.K. government in such a way,” he adds.

Zaiwalla looks at his watch. He is due in court to represent an international defendant in an $80 million commercial claim, but before we draw our meeting to a close, there’s time for one last anecdote. While at a Diwali party of Indian billionnaires the Hinduja brothers, who according to Forbes have a net worth of $9 billion, Zaiwalla was introduced to U.K. prime minister John Major. The two hit it off and became friends, and in 1991 they cohosted a dinner for Asian business leaders at 10 Downing Street—something Zaiwalla considers one of the highlights of his career. When Major’s Conservative party lost the 1997 general elections in a landslide defeat to Tony Blair’s Labour, Zaiwalla sent Major a letter of consolation. In it, he quoted a poem, The Patriot by Robert Browning, which he now recites perfectly, word-for-word:

“Thus I entered, and thus I go. In triumphs, people have dropped down dead. “Paid by the world, what dost thou owe me?” God might question; now instead, ‘Tis God shall repay: I am safer so.”

Zaiwalla says that one day he’ll write a book about his life. I get the impression it would be well worth reading.

Breakfast for two came to £51.19 ($84), with service.

Chris Johnson is The American Lawyer’s chief European correspondent. Reach him at Follow him on Twitter at @chris_t_johnson.