Farmida Bi

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This was a BLD interview with Debo Nwauzu in May 2009. Read more about Farmida Bi in the Directory

Our Lawyer of the Month is Farmida Bi, a partner at international law firm Norton Rose and an expert in Islamic finance. In March she was recognised as one of the five most powerful Muslim women in the UK in the first Muslim Women Power List 2009, compiled by the Equality and Human Rights Commission. The award came hot on the heels of another accolade earlier the same month when she was named as Commercial Lawyer of the Year 2009 by the Society of Asian Lawyers. 

Farmida has specialised in capital markets transactions for over 15 years and has advised on English and New York law debt and equity capital markets transactions (including Islamic finance and securitisations), emerging markets, regulatory issues, structured finance and mergers and acquisitions. She is an expert in Islamic capital markets and acts for a broad range of the leading financial institutions.

Born in Pakistan in 1967, Farmida grew up in Oxford and read Law at Downing College, Cambridge, where she graduated in 1989. She went to the College of Law to do her Legal Practice Course (then known as the Solicitors Finals) until 1990. Farmida joined Clifford Chance in 1990 as a trainee solicitor and qualified as a solicitor there in 1992. She remained at the firm as an associate for a further four years until 1996 when she joined JP Morgan as an in-house lawyer.  But less than a year later she felt that the in-house role was not for her and in 1997 joined the London office of the American law firm Cleary Gottlieb.  She did a lot of New York legal work and therefore went on to qualify and was called to the New York Bar in 1999.

Farmida joined Denton Wilde Sapte in January 2002 as a partner, remaining at the firm until June 2008 when she joined Norton Rose as a partner.

She is interested in politics and in 2005 was chosen as the Labour candidate to fight the safe Tory seat at Mole Valley, an experience she described as “exciting”. She had also been shortlisted in Easington and Sunderland & Washington West as a Labour candidate. In 2007 Farmida stood for selection as a Labour Prospective Parliamentary candidate for Walthamstow (following the current MP, Neil Gerrard’s announcement that he was standing down at the next election), but was beaten into second place by a Walthamstow resident candidate. She has not entirely ruled out attempting to become a Member of Parliament but feels ”no burning ambition to do it right now”.  

In November 2005 she co-founded and became the Chair of the Progressive British Muslims group. She says: “After the bombings on July 7th, I thought those of us who are comfortable with our combined identities as Britons and Muslims need a voice. For too long we had got on with our lives and did not think it had anything to do with us.” She is proud that “the group has now become quite big and has a director, 12 interns and an office in Clerkenwell”.

Farmida was also a trustee of the Muslim Youth Helpline, a non-judgemental telephone and counselling service for Muslims. She also used to be a trustee of the Peabody Trust, a housing charity.

Farmida is married with two sons aged five and two.

Below is our interview with Farmida:

BLD: Why did you choose a legal career?
FB:   To help people. Although I now work in a City law firm, I still think I do help people, although more indirectly, as my speciality is capital markets which is about raising funds for investment to grow the economy. At 13 I had an epiphany that I was going to be a lawyer but at that age I thought it would be as a criminal lawyer.

BLD: If you were to choose another role/profession other than law, what would it be and why?
FB:  Probably politics, perhaps work for a think tank. 

BLD: What was the best career advice you were given?
FB: When I was not sure what area of law in which to specialise, Stephen Roith at Clifford Chance advised me to choose capital markets, which I enjoy very much because it is constantly evolving and very  international.  He was right!  I started doing deals in Latin America, moved on to Russia and now the Middle East has been a particular focus of my practice.

BLD: What was the worst career advice you were given?
FB: That I should study or do subjects that were good for me rather than what I enjoyed.

BLD: What career advice would you give to others?
FB: Decide what you like, focus on that and turn it into a career.

BLD: Who is the person you most admire (dead or alive) and why?
FB:  Lots of people I admire - from Martin Luther, the founder of Lutheranism, to  Martin Luther King, the American civil rights leader. Ultimately I admire those who are true to themselves and stand up for what they believe s right.

BLD: What are you most passionate/happiest about?
FB:  What I’m happiest about in my day-to-day life are my two sons. My passion is the need to create a fairer society, whether in the City, the UK or internationally.

BLD: What are your dislikes?
FB: Unfairness and bullying - whether personally or internationally.

BLD: What was your worst moment as a lawyer?
FB: A long time ago when I was getting very little sleep for weeks on end and I realised what I was doing was trying  to save a bank some taxes, when the bank’s profits exceeded the GDP (gross domestic product) of some countries!

BLD: Tell us about your professional high point(s).
FB: When acting for the government of Pakistan on  its debut Eurobond.  The covenants  I helped to negotiate for them formed the benchmark for all of their future issues and those of any Pakistani corporate issuers. Satisfying, as I was born in Pakistan. 
BLD: What was the most famous/interesting case(s) you have handled to date?
FB: Probably two Islamic finance deals – the Dubai port acquisition of P&O for $3.5 billion.  It was very innovative, important and exciting.  Also Tamweel – it was the first Sharia-compliant securitisation, very complex and innovative.

BLD: Any professional regrets?
FB: Not having lived  abroad for an extended period. It just hasn’t been practical because of my husband’s job as a barrister.   

BLD: If you could rule the world for a day what would you change/do?
FB: If I could wave a magic wand – peace in the world, where there is no fighting and everyone gets to eat what they want