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Meet the lawyer

Zahir Nayani

Zahir Nayani

University: University of the West of England
Degree: Law  
Year of qualification: 2012
Position: Legal director
Department: Islamic finance

What attracted you to a career in law?

I’ve always been drawn towards the humanities subjects, such as English and history, so I came to law through the process of deduction. I thought about how I could best apply the subjects that I really enjoy into a meaningful vocational career and law fitted the bill.

Why solicitor not barrister?

A big part of becoming a solicitor that appealed to me is the international element and opportunity to travel. As part of the Islamic finance team, we have a lot of clients in the Middle East and further afield, and we often go on business trips to build relationships. I wasn’t set on being self-employed as a barrister and preferred the idea of working as part of a team. I also enjoy the benefits and infrastructure of working in a large organisation.

How did you decide which firms to apply to?

In terms of researching firms, I knew that I didn’t want to apply to large City firms and that I would prefer the hands-on approach of training at a smaller firm. I liked the lifestyle that came with having already lived in the South West, with so many appealing opportunities for outdoor adventures on my doorstep, so I applied to national and regional firms.  It was also important to me to get hands-on experience with clients and to work with and alongside senior lawyers to accelerate my learning. I think we do that well at Foot Anstey – our trainees are supervised by partners or other senior lawyers who take a real interest in their development and ensure they get the exposure and access to work that goes hand-in-hand with this.  My university’s careers service was also really helpful – they assisted me with my CV and law firm applications.

My application advice for candidates would be that, as well as the usual emphasis on attention for detail and academics, you should remain true to yourself. Ideas of diversity have moved on quite a lot in the legal profession over the past few years and any firm worth its salt will value you for being, well, you! 

I'd also mention that a career is a marathon – not a sprint – and so it's best to have those ‘bigger picture’ questions, such as what you'd like to get out of it, and what you really value, at the outset so that you remain focused and energised in the years to come.

Please outline your area of expertise. What might you do in a typical day?

I am part of the Islamic finance team, which revolves primarily (but not exclusively) around real estate – whether that’s acting for banks in financing their client’s acquisition of commercial real estate assets, or acting on behalf of investors like big institutions or high net worth private investors from the Middle East or Asia in acquiring, disposing, refinancing or structuring real estate in the UK. Islamic finance effectively allows investors and banks to structure their transactions in accordance with Sharia principles, which at a very basic level prohibits the payment and receipt of interest and encourages equity in human interactions, including in the boardroom. As Islamic law governs the daily lives of a large proportion of the globe, Islamic finance promotes greater economic inclusion by allowing parties that wish to structure their investments in Sharia-compliant manner to do just that. It just so happens that such products often happen to be just as competitive – if not more so – than their traditional counterparts, which allows small and medium-sized enterprises and other entities that simply require finance (irrespective of religious leanings) to get their projects underway. At Foot Anstey we are quite international in our focus. We help to design products for the Islamic market and act for a number of the big players across the world from sovereign wealth funds to a number of exciting FinTech disrupters.

Please discuss a current/recent specific deal/case, outlining your role in the matter.

One of the big cases we’ve recently worked on involved acting for an institutional investor from Kuwait. They were working in partnership with an investment advisory firm from the UK and had identified a real estate asset worth £77 million (the European headquarters of an international conglomerate) that they were going to purchase as an investment. . The investors required their financial return to be Sharia-compliant but, on this occasion, couldn’t secure debt from an Islamic bank. We advised on a ‘hybrid’ property holding structure which utilised conventional debt but, through the use of a ringfenced holding structure, allowed the investors to receive a return that complied with Sharia principles.

What do you most/least enjoy about your career and why?

I most enjoy working with a wide variety of clients from all over the globe at any one time. You get to see the cultural nuances that come with a global practice – for example, how clients from the Gulf differ in their approach to their investment strategies from, say, clients from Malaysia. I think you become a better lawyer for it, not least for the enhanced EQ that comes with frequent exposure to a global client base. The work itself is rewarding and it’s exciting to work on high-value deals. On the flipside, the nature of transactional work necessarily means there are going to be points where you are very busy. That can sometimes be tricky to manage, particularly as Sundays are a working day in the Middle East and the time differences between the UK and Malaysia are significant, but I would mitigate that by saying we have a big team here and there’s always someone on hand to support you.

What skills/strengths do you need to be a successful solicitor?

You should try to instil within you an authentic interest in how businesses work. This is something you can’t feign – you’re either genuinely interested in the corporate world or it's not something that comes naturally. If you're in the latter camp, then you'll pick things up just by working in a business environment (I appreciate that lockdown isn't particularly conducive to learning through osmosis as often happens in the workplace) – listening to the Financial Times on your iPhone isn't a bad starting point. Over time, certain terms and themes will become second nature. Students don’t need to know how the stock market works in granular detail but having an appreciation of the bigger picture certainly helps. In today’s age, I would also say that junior solicitors who want to progress well in their careers must be resilient. Having a thick skin can help when it comes to working to tight deadlines and large transactions. And, generally, being a good egg often gets overlooked as a key skill!

What Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) initiatives are on offer at the firm and how does it fit in with the firm’s wider culture?

I’m hopeful and positive that junior lawyers coming through the ranks and becoming key stakeholders in our businesses will be beneficial for the profession, especially given the almost innate appreciation of issues such as social justice that many of them have from having grown up in an increasingly globalised world. At Foot Anstey, the business has gone through a period of significant growth and transformation over the past decade. Credit where it is due,  the firm has made serious strides to ensure that its D&I offering is ahead of other firms of its size and calibre. The firm secured the National Equality Standard in 2017 on its first assessment and senior management appreciate that an enhanced sense of belonging goes hand-in-hand with an increased rate of staff engagement and meaning in the workplace. I’m part of the firm’s D&I Action Group, which consists of a cross-section of people from across the business, and we've recently reinvigorated the firm’s D&I offering by launching a number of new initiatives including a D&I Awareness Day whereby all staff are entitled to an additional day's leave to participate in community cohesion initiatives and activities to promote inclusion in our localities, and a strategic, focused communications strategy to meaningfully mark a number of significant days in the year – with Black History Month being the most recent example.

Describe the firm in three words.

Ambitious, advisory and agile!

What’re you reading at the moment?

I’m reading Afua Hirsch’s Brit(ish). It’s amazing! I don’t think you can be part of a D&I Action Group if you’re not genuinely interested in finding out other people’s experiences and histories. The irony is often that we share much more in common than first impressions would have us believe. On a lighter note, I'm also relishing Just Ride by Grant Petersen – any excuse to talk bikes!