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Aysha Fernandes - Commercial Finance Director at UK Finance

Alumni spotlight

Ismat Abidi

Counsel at Netflix

Since leaving Eversheds Sutherland, Ismat Abidi has established a hybrid legal-creative career as a media lawyer and award-winning entrepreneur. She is the founder and Creative Director of ‘Freshly Ground Sounds’, the UAE’s first independent live music community which became recognised in the Middle East as the region’s first start-up of its kind. To mark its contribution to the Middle East creative industry, Izzy was named Emirates Woman of the Year in 2015

Today, Izzy combines her lawyer smarts and artistic spirit as Counsel for Netflix, based in the company’s EMEA headquarters in Amsterdam.

Before you trained with Eversheds Sutherland, you helped set up the Abu Dhabi office as a paralegal. What was that like?

Probably the best of year my career in terms of foundation and exposure. I joined a fantastic team of partners and associates, including Nasser Ali Khasawneh, Chairman of the Middle East and Co-Head of the TMT sector; Geraldine Ahern, Abu Dhabi Senior Office Partner; and fellow alumna Dawn Sanderson, now Global Head of Legal at Al Dahra Holding.

At the time, many were new to Abu Dhabi. For me, it was a relocation from the UK, back to my hometown where I understood the culture and had a network. I was the only junior person on-the-ground, so did everything from re-stocking the office cleaning supplies, showing new colleagues the city and attending government meetings with partners. There were about 6-8 colleagues that had moved from large UK offices into this duplex-apartment-turned-office, so it felt like a start-up law firm.

It was a tremendous learning experience. I attended client meetings and observed how partners conducted themselves in a new market. That was during the height of the global financial crisis in 2008/9. As newcomers, we had to be resilient and innovative to secure the trust of clients in a nervous market.

It was a tremendous learning experience. I attended client meetings and observed how Partners conducted themselves in a new market.

What was your proudest moment during your time out there?

Dawn had organized a women-in-business networking event at the British Embassy in the UAE. I was helping out with event preparations. Cherie Blair, barrister and wife of former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, was our guest of honor. My mother also attended in her capacity as a director of a local school.

Both were stood in the Embassy’s gardens, gripped in conversation. As I approached them, I remember thinking what a special moment this was. In reality, my Mum was saying that I should have spent more time studying and less time on music at the London School of Economics (where Cherie also graduated). It was both a highlight and lowlight of the start of my legal career.”

Ismat Abidi and Cherie Blair

Izzy pictured with Cherie Blair and her mother

How did you find the transition to an in-house role?

I’ve held three in-house roles since leaving the firm. Initially, the biggest adjustment was no longer having to record my time. Although it sounds like a minor difference, understanding that there is no direct correlation between time spent and quality of advice is pretty empowering.

Once I got out of the time-keeping mindset, I started to enjoy getting under the skin of the organization and learning everything about what drives business and how they define success. That focus enabled me to become a business partner as well as legal advisor.

My in-house roles have been a US-based software company, a Middle East-based broadcast network, starting an independent production studio and a global streaming platform.

What advice would you give to someone who has recently gone in-house?

Avoid the temptation to give black letter law responses during meetings or when something hits your inbox. The first thing to ask yourself is, “What’s best for this business?” Whether it’s increasing margin or impacting with a new product/service, the answer to that question should be the starting point.

It’s better to give commercial and pragmatic advice first, then back it up with legal implications; rather than rigidly responding, “this is the law, these are the risks”. As you get to know the business, lean into approaching projects as a business advisor first, lawyer second.

Being in-house makes you understand your company’s strategic objectives and, crucially, how your legal advice can help achieve them. That commercial awareness is a vital skill for in-house lawyers. In the creative industry, appreciating the value of creativity helps in-house lawyers be great business partners.

Izzy performs at a Freshly Ground Sounds gig

What was it like to leave (and return to) a legal career to start your own business?

The first time, with Freshly Ground Sounds, was not a conscious move – it happened quite organically. Most of the elements of setting up a company, hiring a team, negotiating brand partnerships were less overwhelming due to my legal background.

The second time, as an Executive Producer of ASLI Studios was scary because there were higher financial stakes and greater shareholder expectations. I’ve learnt from those experiences that being out of your comfort zone is where the rich learning happens. When I returned to my legal career, I felt like a more well-rounded business advisor.

What stands out most for me is the focus on sectors. Eversheds Sutherland is good at that. Nasser, for example, often brings together in-house counsel across the TMT sector.

What do you value most in external counsel?

What stands out most for me is the focus on sectors. Eversheds Sutherland is good at that. Nasser, for example, often brings together in-house counsel across the TMT sector. He always seems to know the latest innovation around the corner.

That industry knowledge comes from advising a spectrum of clients and having a strong network to tap into. Knowing an external counsel has that network is a powerful proposition which, for me, speaks louder than legal directory rankings.

An important factor I value is the diversity and inclusion of the firm I’m instructing. It’s a collective responsibility of everyone in the legal industry to hold each other accountable, to ensure that we’re all consistently working on improving our organizations in that respect. It’s not enough to rely on publicly available statistics. Instead, I have active conversations with external counsel about their approach to inclusion, before instructing them on a matter and would encourage them to ask the same of me.

How do you think Eversheds Sutherland addresses inclusion and diversity?

In 2008 during a summer internship at the firm in Manchester, the first person I noticed was Naeema Choudry, a Muslim female partner. Naeema was someone relatable and a role model to whom I could aspire. The following year when the Abu Dhabi office was being setup, fellow alumnus Kuljit Ghata-Aura was the only non-white partner in the team. (Kuljit is now Vice President and Assistant General Counsel at Boeing Global Services.)

Seeing persons-of-colour in those leadership positions early on in my career has had an encouraging, long-term impact on my outlook of what is possible. I’d like to think that since then, Eversheds Sutherland has continued that trend of ensuring diversity in leadership, especially since the firm has become increasingly global.

Inclusion is something we can all, myself included, consistently work on to improve awareness. Beyond hiring strategies, the aim should be to ensure that inclusion and long-term systemic impact is discussed in our everyday conversations, as opposed to set aside for diversity events or committees, where it is usually the same people in the room.

Can you tell us about your current role at Netflix?

Netflix is known for putting entrepreneurship at the heart of its culture. I’m constantly amazed at the rich experience and diverse minds of people I’m surrounded by, combined with the sheer pace and scale of what the company is doing.

My role is a mix of business and legal affairs in the Middle East and marketing legal which covers the Middle East, Turkey, Africa and Central Eastern Europe. I work with creatives or marketing to figure out the best strategy to turn ideas into productions, or make marketing concepts a reality, all for a global audience.

As with previous roles in my career, my passion lies in helping the independent creative community. It's incredibly fulfilling to be part of a team that gives creatives and stories, particularly from places like Beirut, Lagos and Cairo, a spotlight on a global platform like Netflix.

Most of the elements of setting up a company, hiring a team, negotiating brand partnerships was less overwhelming due to my legal background.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Our personal priorities evolve over time. Now more than ever, our jobs have us glued to a screen for countless hours a day. Work is only one aspect to your identity, as is family, hobbies and social responsibility (or whatever it may be). The best advice I ever received is to maintain perspective and not fix yourself to one thing at the cost of allowing the others to grow.