Imran Bhatia, a notable legal expert with a distinguished and dynamic career path, began his journey at Herbert Smith Freehills in 2011 as a Trainee Solicitor, where he qualified to an Associate role working on mergers and acquisitions, as well as other corporate transactional matters, for a range of international clients.
A pivotal moment in Imran’s career was his transition to JAG Shaw Baker (now, Withers Tech) in 2016. There, he delved into the fast-paced world of high-growth tech companies, gaining crucial experience in venture capital and working with founders and scale-up business, which later became invaluable in his proceeding roles.
In 2018, Imran made a significant leap into hospitality, becoming the first legal counsel for both Ennismore and Norlake Hospitality. His tenure saw strategic growth and expansion, notably in the successful development and launch of new Hoxton, Gleneagles and Estelle hotels. His legal expertise was especially crucial during the COVID-19 pandemic, helping the company navigate challenging and unprecedented times for the sector, as well as leading Ennismore through a transformational merger with Accor.
Following the merger, Imran continued his role with Norlake Hospitality, continuing to oversee the Hoxton, Gleneagles and Estelle properties but with more of an owner’s focus. In 2022, he simultaneously took on the challenge of General Counsel at Unbound, a venture capital firm focusing on disruptive tech startups, bringing a unique perspective from his vast experience.
Imran’s educational background in law, including a Bachelor of Laws from UCL and postgraduate studies in Islamic Banking and Insurance, has been instrumental in his career success. His journey is a compelling example of strategic leadership and adaptability and highlights how diverse legal expertise can profoundly impact and drive the future of hospitality enterprises.
As Imran prepares to take on his next challenge with one of the largest privately held hospitality organisations in the world, placed by HPG Advisory Services, we are delighted that he agreed to join us for a short Q & A as part of our latest Success Stories series.
Based on your varied experiences, what advice would you give to young lawyers aspiring to transition from traditional law firms to in-house counsel roles in industries such as hospitality?
The main piece of advice I can give is to keep an open mind and be curious. You simply don’t know what will appeal to your personality until you try it.
Going back to the start of my career at Herbert Smith Freehills, I remember being delighted that my first trainee seat was in Corporate, so that I could get it out of the way as soon as possible whilst I was at my least experienced (as I was convinced I wanted to be a litigator). Fast forward two years and that was the department I wanted to qualify into.
Then later, the decision to join Ennismore was more about the challenge of building a first legal function within an exciting scale-up business with serious growth plans and a really credible leadership team, as opposed to necessarily looking to join a hospitality company. However, being the legal counsel, especially the sole counsel, provides such a unique position to be able to explore, and have exposure to, different facets and areas of the business, that it led to me developing an interest in the industry more generally, hence my wanting to stay in the space for my next role.
What skills or qualities do you believe have been most crucial to your success in transitioning across different legal roles in various industries?
Firstly, luck! I’m incredibly fortunate that every organisation I have joined has given me the chance to work with brilliant people who I can learn from and who have helped me to settle into new environments.
The other crucial part, I think, is to not take yourself too seriously and to have the confidence to bring your personality to the fore – and the rest will follow. The world has more than enough serious lawyers. Whenever I take on a legal role within a new organisation, I always believe that the recruiters and hiring panel within the business will have had their choice of lawyers to hire, with experience and expertise greater than, if not equal to, my own. In my mind, therefore, the deciding factor must have been a personality or culture fit that someone saw in me during the interview stage, and that is what I need to ensure I lead with.
The organisation will take it for granted that I’ll be a technically competent lawyer, but bringing your true personality and an air of humility, especially in an industry that is new to you, is a crucial way to adapt, become comfortable, and be seen as approachable within the organisation. And if it’s genuine, that should be the easiest thing to do.
Can you describe a moment in your career when you faced significant uncertainty or risk in making a job change? How did you navigate that decision?
Leaving Herbert Smith Freehills to join JAG Shaw Baker was for sure a big call and a tough decision. I was happy at the only firm I’d ever worked at, one of the biggest in the world, in a team where I had a good reputation, surrounded by fantastic people and working on great deals. The decision to jump ship to a firm that no one at HSF had heard of was a tough call and it was met with some raised eyebrows.
But for me, what swung the decision was precisely that – how different it was to HSF.
I was clear in my mind that working with earlier stage companies, where I could have a more impactful and long-lasting relationship with my clients as only a 2-year qualified lawyer, had to be my next step. To join another large or medium sized firm in the City, where the change in organisation size and culture would have been less acute, would have made no sense given how happy I was at HSF. Stepping out of my comfort zone was crucial for me to really shift the type of work and clients that I was exposed to. Although I went from a firm that had the luxury of 24-hour document support, and joined a firm that had as many people as HSF had physical offices (and where you had to activate the burglar alarm if you were the last one out at night!), it was the best decision I could have made at the time.
When you began your roles at Ennismore and Norlake, you were very much a one-person band, in a role that had not previously existed. How did you approach setting up and evolving this role?
I have had the chance to build a first legal function within a few organisations now. I consider it a privilege and a really interesting challenge, particularly within hospitality. There can be an instinctive (often, rightly) mistrust of lawyers within a hospitality business – that the creative and operational brilliance that has got the organisation to such a point that they even need a lawyer may now be curtailed or wrapped up in red-tape by the new bore in a suit.
The golden balance to strike is to ensure that you protect the business (which as a lawyer, is of course the reason you are there), without being the fun police. It is a real hearts and minds battle which requires patience, humility and listening to people. If you get this balance right though, it is such a fun place to be. You can be the approachable, go-to person for everyone in the organisation (rather than the lawyer in the ivory tower), with the aim of being in the room when ideas are being discussed, rather than finding out about things too late (and when they have already gone wrong and need fixing).
Someone once told me “you’re not what I thought a lawyer would be” – I wear that as a badge of honour.
In your role as General Counsel, how do you balance the often divergentinterests of property ownership with the operational needs and goals of a business?
Any in-house lawyer will tell you that a key skill is to be able to ‘live in the grey’ – to have an approach to risk that perhaps isn’t what you would have been taught in law school but lives in the commercial reality of the business and identifies what is a genuine legal risk and what is a tolerable trade-off for doing business. If you are involved in the operational side of a hotel business, understanding this balance and getting it right is crucial.
A key way to get this right is to work closely with, and have a good relationship, with your General Managers and senior Ops staff. One thing I have learned is that GMs are geniuses at what they do, and will instinctively do everything they can to protect their hotels. Their risk radar is often set at exactly the right level, and so they are a great resource to leverage from when determining where you should set your balance as a lawyer.
On the property ownership side, there can be a temptation to be more conservative and not as operationally liberal in approach. However, a key point to remember that between owner and operator, there should be an alignment in interests more than a divergence. At the end of the day, if the hotel is successful, everyone should stand to benefit.
How have mentors and professional networks influenced your career decisions and progression?
A key thing with mentors, especially within law, is that you can admire people and see them as mentors, without actually wanting to emulate their career paths. I’m very lucky to have Partners and other lawyers who I have worked with, both whilst in private practice and since, who I consider friends and who I have discussed my career moves with in a non-judgmental way, whose advice I deeply respect and appreciate (even though I don’t think I would ever go back to private practice myself!)
Being in-house, and especially as a sole counsel, can be a lonely gig, but fortunately some fantastic networks for in-house lawyers have been formed over the last few years, which are great for sharing knowledge, tips and asking the questions you don’t want to be billed for by your retained lawyers.
What would have been your Plan B?
Ultimately, what I love the most about being a lawyer is the challenge of communicating information to people in a way that will resonate with and make sense to them. I think that’s why my Plan B would have been to be either a teacher or a journalist. Or, if talent wasn’t a requirement, centre forward for Liverpool FC.
To discuss how we can support your businesses with our full suite of human capital services to help grow your hospitality business, please call HPG Advisory Services on +44 20 8600 1160 or email Dan Akhtar on firstname.lastname@example.org