Fighting for change

Farmida Bi CBE, global chair at Norton Rose Fulbright, discusses the importance of diversity in the boardroom, as well as some of her biggest achievements to date, with Sonia Sharma


Farmida's awards and recognition

Fifty Most Influential Lawyers list 2022 – Financial News

Women in Power & Influence awards 2022 – Innovative Leaders in ESG and Diversity

The 100 Most Influential Women in European Finance 2021, 2020 and 2019

HERoes Top 100 Role Model List 2020 and 2019

The Lawyer Hot 100 Leaders 2019

Outstanding Practitioner Award 2019: Euromoney, Europe Women in Business Law Awards

Finance Team of the Year 2018: Legal Business Awards

FT 100 Innovative Lawyers Europe 2018
Arriving in the UK at the age of six from Pakistan, Farmida took some time to adjust to her new way of life. But by the age of 13, she had learnt to speak and read English fluently and at 14 years old had decided that practising law was the profession for her in a rather “Damascene moment”. This epiphany came quite suddenly while waiting in a school corridor before the start of a lesson, when she concluded that her “combination of idealism and argumentativeness” made it the ideal career choice for her.

A quick scan of some of her career highlights confirms she made the right decision about her future. While climbing the career ladder (see next section), she didn’t forget her idealism, combining her work on multibillion-dollar debt capital markets transactions with pro bono work, such as the world’s first humanitarian impact bond, which funded physical rehabilitation centres for the International Committee of the Red Cross. Recognition of her success has come with multiple awards, and in 2020 she was awarded a CBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List for services to law and charity.

She believes that this is an incredibly exciting time to be leading a law firm, with the many challenges facing businesses of all kinds after Brexit and emerging from the pandemic, including technological, cultural, economic, and geopolitical changes. “I have never seen so many aspects of life change at the same time,” she says, “and this gives rise to an unprecedented opportunity to do things better in the future.”

An impressive career

After graduating in law from Downing College, Cambridge in 1989, Farmida trained as a solicitor at Clifford Chance, before working as an associate at J.P. Morgan and Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton (see Farmida’s CV boxout for more detail). In 1992, she qualified as a solicitor and in 2002 became a partner at global law firm Denton Wilde Sapte. After six years, she joined international law firm Norton Rose Fulbright as a lateral partner in 2008, specialising in debt capital markets and Islamic finance, before being elected by her partners as EMEA chair in 2018 – the first female chair of a major UK law firm. In January 2022, she became global chair of Norton Rose Fulbright.

Farmida Bi CBE

2022–present: Global chair, Norton Rose Fulbright

2021–present: Chair, Barbican
Centre Trust

2018–present: EMEA chair, Norton Rose Fulbright

2018–present: Chair, Patchwork Foundation

2008–present: Partner, Norton Rose Fulbright

2002–2008: Partner, Dentons

1997–2001: Associate, Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton (London office)

1996–1997: Associate, J.P. Morgan

1992–1996: Associate, Clifford Chance

1990–1992: Trainee, Clifford Chance

1989: Graduates from Downing College with a Master of Laws

She built an impressive career along the way, specialising in debt capital markets and acting for both governments and global investment banks and corporations. “I feel very fortunate to have been involved in so many interesting transactions and market developments, from the focus on Latin America in the early 1990s to the growth of the tech sector and Islamic finance in the early 2000s,” she says.

She has also been a key figure in the field of Islamic finance and was “involved with the development of the global sukuk (Islamic bond) market from almost the beginning”, describing this as a “rare opportunity as a lawyer” and a “real highlight to participate in the development of an entirely new market”. She advised on many market-leading deals, including the first UK sukuk, the first musharakah (Shariah-compliant investment partnership) structured sukuk, and the first residential mortgage securitisation sukuk, with her prominence in this field leading to her being named one of the five most powerful Muslim women in the UK, according to the inaugural Muslim Women Power List 2009, published by The Times newspaper in conjunction with the Equality and Human Rights Commission, a UK government body. 

A multicultural perspective

When Farmida began her career in the City of London in the early 1990s, it was in a very different environment to today. Technology was limited and she recalls that there were very few senior women within organisations. There was “little diversity of any kind”, but she persevered because she “enjoyed the international work” and developed good friendships with her colleagues, “who were generally very bright and collegiate,” she says.

Although she believes that the legal industry is generally welcoming to talented people from different backgrounds, she has worked throughout her career to make sure that opportunities at every level are equally available. 

 “It is vital that everyone at Norton Rose Fulbright – a global firm servicing global clients – believes that they belong. It’s not acceptable for us to have either a monoculture or a dominant culture – we have to have a culture that embraces everybody,” says Farmida.

She stresses the importance of not just ticking boxes on equity and diversity. “In terms of what we can do to widen access, I think it is important to create a culture which is welcoming to everyone and to support people through their whole career and not just at the point of entry.” She believes “measurable targets around different forms of diversity” will enable organisations to “assess progress and be held to account for the results”.
It’s not acceptable for us to have either a monoculture or a dominant culture – we have to have a culture that embraces everybody

Norton Rose Fulbright has implemented a 40:40:20 gender diversity strategy (40% women, 40% men, 20% flexible). The company’s global executive management team now has a 50/50 gender balance and of the five regional chairs, three are women and four are from minority ethnic backgrounds, she adds.

But there is still work to be done, including in the boardroom, says Farmida, where a lack of diversity leads to “a narrower range of inputs, which is likely to affect decision-making”. But that is “a practical way of looking at it, when really it is fundamentally about treating people fairly”.

Aligning core values

Farmida’s desire to make a difference to the world led her to engage with politics at an early age, and she is still passionate about encouraging people to become more involved. She stood as a Labour Party candidate in the 2005 general election, having joined the party while at school in the mid-1980s during the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher.

Contesting the Conservative safe seat of Mole Valley (district in southeast England), she polled just over 5,000 votes, coming third behind the Liberal Democrat candidate. She may not have won but felt privileged to have had the experience of talking to people while campaigning with her baby son at the weekends for 18 months, hearing about the challenges they were facing and what they expected the government to do to help them. “I would urge everyone to get involved in democracy in action – it’s easy to stand on the side-lines and criticise politicians for their failings, but more of us need to participate.”

She also puts these ideals into practice as chair of the Patchwork Foundation, a non-partisan charity encouraging young people from disadvantaged and minority ethnic backgrounds to become politically engaged through work experience in Parliament, and masterclasses with leading figures from politics, business, and the media. ‘Get Involved’ is the catchphrase used by Patchwork.

Farmida’s involvement isn’t limited to politics – as someone who has always loved the arts, she is also chair of the Barbican Centre Trust, which supports the Barbican, Europe’s biggest multi-arts centre.

Ethical finance

In her professional life, she looks at the intersection between ethics, faith, and business, and has been involved in ethical finance through Islamic financial transactions which, she explains, operate on the basis of neither charging interest nor “oppressing the counterparties”, and have as an underlying principle the use of “finance for a social good”.

Her interest in ethical finance has also led her to focus on the role Islamic finance can play in unlocking funding for environmental, social, and governance (ESG) initiatives, as the two are “naturally aligned”, she says. “I have always been intrigued by the fact that the concept of trust law came to Britain from the Middle East, where the Crusaders discovered the Waqf funds [sustainable, ongoing charitable endowments] that supported public hospitals and schools,” she says.

She stresses the positive, active role money should play in improving society, with the most significant development in Islamic ESG being the substantial increase in green sukuk – the increasingly popular Shariah-compliant, fixed-income capital markets instruments – which mirrors the increase in the green bond market, used primarily for funding renewable energy projects.

There is huge potential for Shariah-compliant social impact financing

Farmida says: “The huge growth in the ESG market, especially in the past five years, has completely dwarfed the Islamic finance market and I believe there is a huge opportunity for Islamic finance to develop further within the ESG umbrella.” She explains that there is huge potential for Shariah-compliant social impact financing, targeting improving health, education, housing, and other social development goals, which can be seen by the fact that some charities are now tapping into the zakat (the amount of wealth a Muslim person pledges to charity each year) market. Farmida and the team at Norton Rose Fulbright recently provided pro bono advice to the global charity Save the Children on a zakat campaign to encourage donations.

Next steps

Farmida believes the most important thing for those who are contemplating a career in law and/or Islamic finance is to be interested and engaged in the nature and purpose of it. “As far as Islamic finance is concerned, it’s important to understand conventional financing structures as Islamic finance uses those as a starting point to consider what alterations are needed to comply with the principles of Shariah,” she explains.

She continues to use her position to broaden inclusivity in her own firm and in the wider market, and to make the firm’s work more meaningful. In 2021, she initiated a three-year strategic partnership with Save the Children which includes significant pro bono work, and she also launched the Scholars bursary programme, through which ten students aspiring to study law were each awarded £5,000, as well as educational and career support.

“With frequent changes in the law and the market, everyone’s practice and experience will evolve over time but for those willing to work hard and remain open to change, law can be very rewarding,” says Farmida. “We have a more inclusive culture now, and people who traditionally thought a career in a City law firm wouldn’t be comfortable for them may be surprised. Things have changed enormously and anyone who is bright and ambitious, with a passion for justice, should definitely think about the law.”
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Published: 17 Oct 2022
  • International regulation
  • zakat
  • sustainability
  • sukuk
  • musharakah
  • Islamic finance
  • ESG
  • diversity and inclusion
  • career development

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