As part of a series of interviews we are showcasing the potential for lawyers beyond the ‘traditional role’. Syed Nasser speaks to Imran Bhatia, General Counsel for Unbound and Norlake Hospitality about his legal career and his transition from private practice to in-house roles.
Could you tell us a bit about your background and your current role?
I started my career at Herbert Smith (as was then, before becoming HSF – it was a while ago!) as a trainee and then qualified into a Corporate team specialising mainly in private company M&A. I worked with a truly incredible team (I’m lucky enough to count many of the team as friends as well as counsel that I’ve had the chance to instruct since moving in-house) and worked on some amazing transactions.
When I was two years qualified, I moved to a firm called JAG Shaw Baker (now known as Withers Tech), advising high-growth tech companies and venture capital investors, on investment rounds, exits and everything in between. It was a firm I had never heard of, and neither had anyone at HSF (many of whom thought I was crazy to make the move) and so it felt like a massive gamble (shoutout to Syed Nasser for placing me there!) The work involved completely different types of transaction and clients, and the firm itself was very different too, and I absolutely loved it.
A couple of years later I heard, from one of my old bosses at HSF, that Ennismore (operators of The Hoxton Hotels, Gleneagles and some independent restaurants in London) and Norlake Hospitality (the owner of several of the properties) were looking for their first ever legal counsel. At the time, there were four Hoxtons trading, across London and Europe, with several more planned to open in the coming years (including four in the US). Having just turned 30, and despite massive imposter syndrome, it was an opportunity I felt I could not turn down. I joined as General Counsel to both Ennismore and Norlake, and in the next four years I supported the business as it opened more hotels and added several sites to the development pipeline, went into new business directions (such as coworking spaces and private members clubs) and navigated the challenges that Covid brought to the hospitality industry, before leading Ennismore into a merger with Europe’s largest hotel company, Accor.
Post-merger, it was no longer appropriate for me to represent both Ennismore and Norlake, and I was also ready for a change. As of the start of 2022, I have continued my role with Norlake but have also gone full circle by taking on the role of General Counsel with Unbound, a venture capital firm investing in disruptive tech companies.
Why did you leave private practice?
To me, being a lawyer is about building relationships with your clients and helping them to solve problems. It would have been unrealistic for me, at two years qualified, to expect that I could be the person that the likes of Sky or BP would make contact with at HSF when they needed support. But I knew that even at such a junior stage, being part of a large transaction team that would only be mobilised when that client needed help on a transaction, was not the level of client interaction and relationship building that I was looking for.
The move to a much smaller firm, with smaller ticket transactions and earlier stage clients, absolutely fit the bill for me. Often, the client company was comprised of two guys and an idea, who had suddenly found someone to invest in them, and you were the first lawyer they had ever spoken to. It gave me the chance to work closely with the business and ‘get under the bonnet’ to understand how it worked and prepare it for investment, as well as to be on the other end of the phone or a Whatsapp to help solve the problems that an early stage company might encounter on an ad hoc basis. Still at a junior level, it was incredibly satisfying to work on deals that you know could completely transform the business, as well as to go out and win new clients as well as being personally introduced to new companies by clients that I’d worked with.
Moving in-house was taking that integration within a business to the next level. It was a step I always thought I might take, and JAG Shaw Baker was probably as close to being ‘in house’ as I could be whilst still being in private practice. When the opportunity with Ennismore came up, it was a no-brainer to take the plunge and step out of private practice – and I’ve never looked back.
Were there any challenges in making a move?
Making the move from HSF to a much smaller firm posed some practical challenges. I joined a firm that had as many people as HSF had offices! Where HSF was a 24-hour office, at JAG Shaw Baker you deactivated the burglar alarm if you were the first in and set it if you were last out. I actually loved that side; it felt like we were not only advising start-ups, but were a start-up law firm ourselves. It had a real family feel, and the firm felt a lot more connected to the type of work we were doing and the work that I had moved firms for.
Moving in-house to be the sole (and first ever) lawyer within not only a large London office, but supporting a network of hotels across the world, had a couple of immediate challenges. Firstly, when a lawyer comes into a design and brand-led business that has grown incredibly quickly off the back of creativity, the suspicions are there that you might now step in to be the ‘fun police’. The Day-1 challenge was therefore to show that you were there to support and not hinder the progress of the business, and in doing so probably become a lot more commercial in approach (read: let a lot more slide than “Law School Me” could ever imagine!)
Another challenge was to build a function from scratch that had never existed before, within a business that had already grown so much. And in particular, to do that without another lawyer there to bounce ideas off.
Finally, and being transparent, you do hit a ceiling quicker on what you can earn in-house, compared to working in private practice.
What are some of your biggest challenges today?
I’m still a team of one, for each of Norlake and Unbound. It’s a daily challenge not having another lawyer to discuss proposed strategies, or even discussing drafting, with. It also means that whatever the issue is, you’re still the only person in the room who can give a legal view, even if you do not see it as your specialism or something that you have seen before. Fortunately, I have zero shame in saying “I don’t know” and over the years have built up an amazing network of lawyers who I have no problem picking up the phone to and asking silly questions.
At the same time, I have also learned to trust my own judgment. Law firms teach us to see lawyers as sitting with a particular specialty or skill set, and whilst this is necessary in a law firm context, within a business you have to trust that the ‘lawyer’s radar’ can flex to scenarios and that you will, inevitably, bring a point of view and an instinct that no one else in the room may have, even if it feels like an unfamiliar situation.
Today, having two very different roles at the same time, covering both hospitality real estate property management/ownership and venture capital investment is a lot of fun. These are two areas that have been a big part of my career over my past roles, and I feel very blessed to be able to be involved in both. However, flipping constantly between two email inboxes is a real challenge!
How does your working day differ now?
Well first and foremost, no timesheets! Otherwise, I would say generally speaking, in-house work is more intense across the course of a day, as there are always things to do and a to-do-list (or in my case, two) which will never be fully ticked off. Whereas even if you are working on a huge transaction within a law firm, there will be peaks and troughs as drafts are exchanged from one side to the other and there will be an end point to the matters you are working on.
The flip side is that in-house, your hours are generally more predictable – you might have to contend with timezones but if you are going to need to work anti-social hours, you will mostly have more foresight of this (and it will likely be rarer) than working in private practice.
Do you have any advice for those considering a similar change?
Do a client secondment, as this will give you the best visibility (as a private practice lawyer) of what in-house life is actually like. But at the same time, there is no ‘one size fits all’ view of what an in-house lawyer’s role is like – every company is different and what the role of a lawyer will be will vary dramatically based on size of company, size of legal team, the industry etc. I did a client secondment as a trainee, which I thoroughly enjoyed and reinforced that I would want to move in-house at some stage. But at that company, there were 100 lawyers; I was never under any illusions that my ‘team of 1’ role would be anything remotely similar.
Also, talk to people who’ve made a similar step to work in the type of in-house role that you are actually interested in. I’m always open to talk to people so feel free to reach out!
And if you’ve done these things and it is still what you want to do, my final advice would be simply to do it.
Do you have advice to law firms and/or young lawyers as a result of your experiences?
Keep an open mind (and that probably applies to firms and young lawyers, actually).
To firms, be creative as to where your new clients and opportunities might come from. Set up relationships with smaller law firms who might then pass the baton on to you of clients who scale and outgrow them. Today, the next generation of big corporates are start-ups who are being serviced by a firm you may have never heard of, but you could support that firm when it comes to an IPO or a massive exit when the client become a unicorn.
And to young lawyers, do not close your mind to any area of law during your training contract. In my head I was destined to be a litigator, and my first seat was in Corporate because it was compulsory and I wanted to get it out of the way whilst I was at my ‘greenest’. Fast forward, that was the team that I wanted to qualify into, doing the work which has set the roadmap for the rest of my career.