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My career story: I went from being a litigation trainee at a small Scottish firm to head of Islamic finance at the world’s biggest firm

Written by: Becky Waller-Davies
Published on: 2 Nov 2015

Qasim Aslam article


Dentons’ Qasim Aslam tells The Lawyer about how he climbed the career ladder.

Where did you train?

I started my career in a very modest way at a very small firm called Trainor Alston in Glasgow. I was working at the coalface and one year into my training contract I was appearing in front of the court and in front on tribunal panels.

You have to adapt very quickly to that very live environment and it was fantastic for me as I had a lot of enthusiasm and energy. Those environments in which you present in front a judge and cross-examine witnesses including police officers are fantastic for any lawyer. I qualified into litigation and went onto Glasgow boutique banking litigation firm Anderson Fyfe.

Then I made my first big jump to Dundas & Wilson. I joined and went straight into the project finance team. Going from being a contentious lawyer to all of sudden being a transactional lawyer was quite a change.

How did you manage to change focus so dramatically?

I had done banking at university as part of my commercial law honours and I wanted to be more involved in front-end, transactional work. I remember that at interview the partner asked me what I knew about project finance. The one key lesson I learned was to be honest. If you have limited knowledge you have limited knowledge. He appreciated honesty and enthusiasm. And that got me my break into the best project finance team in Scotland.

It was a remarkable time for me. I was there for six years and had a great partner mentor during that time called Michael Stoneham. His approach was highly intelligent, laconic and purposeful. He was in no way dramatic and had a very gentlemanly approach. He taught me that we are professionals at end of day and we should avoid emotional drama. He was a phenomenal source of knowledge for me.

Do you think it is important to have a mentor?

Absolutely. It’s very important to have someone like that. I learned from my mentor that no matter what the issue there will always be an intelligent answer – that you need to be nimble in how you move and be sure-footed. It doesn’t matter how big a problem you have, you can always break it down. I was incredibly lucky to spend so many years with him. He had a phenomenal intellect, was calm and understated and able to deal with anything, I never saw him flustered.

How did your earlier career in litigation help you in project finance?

The one thing that kept me in good stead when I was transactional lawyer was that I had seen how judges rationalised issues in court and had direct experience of having to deal with alternative situations in disputes. It was helpful in drafting and finding solutions to issues that came up on transactions.

After six years you decided to become an Islamic finance lawyer. How did you reach that decision and achieve your goal?

There was a stream of publicity around Islamic finance at the time and it caught my imagination. If you’re a project finance lawyers you then inevitably become a project finance lawyer and a projects lawyer. The two overlap and you evolve into the other. I had a finance skills set and rather than follow the classic evolution I blocked myself out of that formula and went and did something different.

Where did you end up?

I moved to Dubai in 2007 to be a senior associate at Herbert Smith. It was a fresh experience for me as Herbert Smith had only opened a few months before, so I was building the practice with partner Nadim Khan.

Transitioning from Dundas & Wilson to Herbert Smith was relatively easy. It was same quality output so I didn’t feel I had to raise my game. But what was different was that I was being exposed to multijurisdictional deals. I was in contact with counsel in different countries and had to have knowledge of local laws. But those are things that you can quickly develop with some experience and common sense.

How did you progress from project finance to Islamic finance?

Having a project finance background and proper banking background was invaluable when it came to Islamic finance. They are all subsets of structured finance and I already had a particular way of thinking and was sensitive to thinking about structures. Part of being an Islamic finance lawyer is to find alternatives in structuring that are faithful to Sharia principles but gets to similar commercial ends. There are all kinds of courses that teach Islamic finance now, but I learned it on the job.

What else did you have to adjust to and how did you do it?

Having come from an established centre, Edinburgh, to an emerging financial centre, I had to appreciate that for some people English wasn’t their first language and I also just had to understand that some of the structures I was dealing with, while routine in the UK, may not be so in the region. You then have to deliver advice with clarity and patience.

How did you become a partner at Dentons?

I had been approached by law firms to come and join them before Dentons approached me. They all offered partnership and I could have moved to one of the others but I found Dentons to be really nice, there was a lot of sincerity and a great deal of rapport when I met them.

You develop loyalty to a firm and it becomes hard to move but it is important to become a partner in the best environment possible. That, for me, was Dentons. They have a long, long presence in the region, a great network and I enjoy the open door environment. It is exactly what I want from somewhere where I’m spending most of my life, frankly.

You’ve gone from being a litigation trainee at a small Scottish firm to being head of Islamic finance at what is now the biggest firm in the world. What’s your secret?

It wasn’t easy to see how I was going to get from a small firm to an international stage but I had that ambition from the beginning. I wasn’t sure how it was going to happen; I just knew I wanted it to. I assembled that vision better over time.

I became more aware of how to get there as I went on. If you know what you want you have a better chance of sensing an opportunity. I always had that and I persevered. Everything I had hoped for is falling into place. Really, there is no substitute for hard work and it really helps to have a good vision of where you want to be.