Imam is a partner at Foot Anstey and Head of our Islamic finance sector team.
What was your career before Foot Anstey and what attracted you?
I did my training contract and then became a commercial property lawyer at a large Top 50 firm in Bristol until I moved to Foot Anstey in 2011.
I had always taken a personal interest in Sharia Law, and studied it in my own time. After years of working in commercial property law, doing a broad range of land work and buying and selling for investors, I realised that there was scope to combine my professional and personal interests. This sparked my pursuit of work in the area of Islamic finance law, fuelled by phenomenal growth in this market, with the government looking to establish London as a global centre for Islamic finance. I could see the huge potential, and started to build the beginnings of a practice, and build my own reputation.
So, what made you decide to move to Foot Anstey?
My career was going well, but I felt constrained. I was seen as a very good commercial property lawyer, with some important clients. This was my value. The Islamic finance work was seen as a side-line. Extracurricular. It wouldn’t be accepted as a business case for partnership. I wanted to work somewhere where I could start with a blank page and focus on building a significant Islamic finance practice. I met with John Westwell and was blown away by the entrepreneurial and relaxed, open discussion we had.
How is Foot Anstey different?
There is a culture of accessibility. Typical law firms have a rigid corporate structure. You talk to your line manager; they talk to their line manager – you don’t talk directly to anyone senior. You are seen as a cog in a big machine. At Foot Anstey, I could speak directly to the managing partner, table my ideas, and discuss ways to action them. And this culture is present throughout the firm, which encourages collaboration and creative thinking.
What did Foot Anstey offer that encouraged you to take the leap?
The firm was prepared to listen to my bold, ambitious idea and to support me to put it into action. I wanted to build a niche practice from the ground, my way, and to compete with the very biggest firms. I set out my vision and my business case, and John Westwell embraced it, as did the FD, who was refreshingly strategic. It was a risk, for one lawyer in a regional firm to set up a practice in this area, but there was a willingness to go on the journey together. He was offering both the freedom and support and investment to make it happen. This included building up other capabilities in the firm to support my practice; such as banking, corporate, dispute resolution etc, to deal with complex transactions. There was a real can-do attitude.
There’s a lot of talk of trust at Foot Anstey. How did trust affect your decision to join?
Trust is a big deal at Foot Anstey. And it works both ways. I trusted them enough to make the leap – I believed they saw it as a joint enterprise. I would bring my energy, enthusiasm, experience, hard work and connections – and they would match it. They put their trust in me to deliver. It was a risk for both parties but it has more than paid off.
How did it feel, starting from nothing?
It was a challenge, but one I was ready for. Previously, my desk was always 130% full, every day. Now I had an empty desk and I had to make it happen. For some people this would be terrifying. Those aren’t the people who thrive at Foot Anstey. It’s the ones who think “wow, that’s exciting” who will love working here.
You’ve now been at Foot Anstey for nearly ten years – what have you found the most rewarding?
Being able to build a team and being given the freedom to do it my own way, which was by bringing in newly qualified trainees each year (not recruiting senior associates, as was suggested to me). And it’s been very successful – we’ve added one a year, and they’ve all stayed, so I have a solid, secure team, fully trained, my way, from the ground up. My first recruit is now legal director!
What would you say were highlights of your time at FA?
Definitely my first large transaction – that was really exciting. We worked with 90 North, representing some Middle Eastern investors on a £40 million student accommodation deal. We dealt with acquisition, investment restructuring and Sharia finance, bringing in specialists from the real estate team and working with our Head of Corporate on investment restructuring. We worked together to deliver a really big deal. And it has led to lots of other opportunities with 90 North.
On the banking side, one of first clients we worked with was Gatehouse Bank, which at the time was a very small Sharia compliant investment bank. We started doing bits of regulatory work, and over the years we’ve grown this relationship, and it is now our biggest Islamic finance client, and is one of Foot Anstey’s top five clients.
What differentiates you from an average lawyer?
I think it’s probably having vision. For the average lawyer, vision is determined by what’s on their desk. My vision is about looking out to whole market – what’s developing out there? Where are the opportunities? How can we build a practice to service that field? It’s not unique to me but it’s not in everyone. For people like me, Foot Anstey offers a place to thrive, and realise ambitions on a scale that is unimaginable in most major law firms.