As Senior Partner at Isolas Law Firm, Peter Isola is justifiably proud that the company is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year, but not only is Isolas the longest established law firm in Gibraltar; it is now leading the way in the development of the Fintech industry in Gibraltar and was recognized as a tier 1 law firm by Chambers this year.
Born and bred in Gibraltar into a very close, warm Italian family environment, Peter went to the Loreto Convent followed by the Christian Brothers School until at the age of nine he was sent to Stonyhurst, the Jesuit boarding school in Lancashire. “It was an interesting experience,” he says, “but my body couldn’t cope with the cold.” Peter tells how he discovered snow for the first time. “It looked so beautiful from inside, but I remember running out onto the snow and running straight back in because it was so freezing cold.” Unfortunately it was a huge shock to his system and his knuckles and knees opened up and he had to go to Matron every day until they were cured.
Harking back to his Italian ancestry, it was Peter’s great grand uncle Horace Parody who founded the law firm in 1892; the Parody’s having come to Gibraltar in the late 18th century from Genoa. Peter’s great grandmother was a Parody who married into the Isola family, and it was his grandfather Albert who continued the practice in 1921 that still bears the Isola family name. From the early 50s Peter’s father, Peter J. Isola, together with his elder brother William, worked with their father until his death. The firm enjoyed a strong reputation from its early years. His contribution to Gibraltar politics was honoured recently by the naming of ‘Peter Isola Promenade’ at Mid Harbours Marina. “My family is very grateful that my father has been recognised in this way,” Peter says, laughing as he continues “and when everyone’s much older, they will think it is me!”
Peter acknowledges his father with not pressurising him to become a lawyer. “In fact, I was about fifteen when he asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up and I told him that I didn’t want to be a lawyer, but that I would like to become an accountant or an architect,” Peter explains. “I have always had a fascination with mathematics and always loved spreadsheets,” he says, going on to admit that the first thing he did when he returned to Gibraltar was to write a programme (before Windows) to work out what estate duty was payable by clients on death.
So when his father came back from a trip to the UK with careers booklets on accountancy and architecture, Peter asked him why he hadn’t brought back a booklet on law. “My father said ‘you told me you didn’t want to do law’, so I really felt the pressure was off.”
“When I was about eighteen I really didn’t know what I wanted to do,” Peter states, “and as a result of that I started analysing what I really enjoyed and I realised it had been A level English and History.” Peter goes on to say that the use of English language in law is important in articulating arguments both as an advocate and in drafting generally and that law is history . “Looking at precedents, at past cases and learning from historical decisions,” he states, “so I fell into the law in that way but once I decided on a legal career I never looked back.”
After retaking his A levels, Peter went on to Kingston Polytechnic: “On the basis that no university in their right mind would have me,” he states. Peter cites the difference at that time between going to university or to Polytechnic as one that enabled him personally to become a better grounded lawyer.. “Polytechnic tended to be more an extension of school, being taught by a teacher rather than being tutored and left to your own devices, so I learnt more and felt very confident when I finished,” he says.
During the year when Peter was retaking his A levels he attended a crammer college in Oxford. “I met a lot of interesting people,” he says “including the Princess of Bhutan – whose brother was King.” At a time when people generally couldn’t travel to the Kingdom, the Princess invited him to go to Bhutan. “I had the jabs and the air tickets in readiness, but it was clear that my mother wasn’t very happy about my going with a young Princess,” he laughs saying, “she was worried that I might not come back, and although it was one of my regrets later in life, at the time I agreed not to go. .”
Peter knows that his decision to become a lawyer pleased his father tremendously, but he didn’t realise how much until he qualified and decided that he didn’t want to come back to work and live in Gibraltar. “The frontier had only just opened to pedestrians in 1982, so for a 23 year-old single lawyer there would have been a limited social life and it wasn’t an attractive prospect,” he explains. “I was told in no uncertain terms by my father, on whom I was totally dependent, that I was coming back to help him with the firm.”
Home was in Bell Lane, but that is also where Isolas’ offices were. “The first floor was the office and the second and third floors were home,” Peter states, carrying on describing how there were days when he never went out of the building. “My Mum would call us at about 9 o’clock to come up for dinner and when we had finished we would come back down and carry on working,” he says. “It was quite normal for me at that time to work until midnight most days and also to work on Saturdays. It was very intense.”
Enjoying the business of law, Peter continued to develop the firm over the years, making it efficient in every way.
“I felt a tremendous desire to develop the firm and get on with life, so I was very efficient with my time but really enjoyed the 80s in Gibraltar.”
The real growth period in Gibraltar was seen from February 1985 when the frontier fully opened; allowing firms to take their business activities initially into Spain and Portugal, as well as with the UK which, to some extent, had already been in place. “We were forming companies for owning property in Spain and Portugal,” Peter explains, “and that is when my brother Lawrence and I set up the Fiduciary Group dealing with corporate and trust matters which grew exponentially over the next couple of decades.”
Before that, there were relatively few lawyers in Gibraltar and Isolas had been dealing mainly with local and admiralty matters. “When I joined Isolas there were seven or eight people working for the firm,” Peter states. “In fact Yolanda Harnamji, now in her 85th year, is still here and has been with us since I was a young boy wearing shorts. She is very much an integral part of the firm and on her 80th birthday I promised her a job for life The combined law firm and Fiduciary now has around 110 employees including partners, directors, accountants and wealth managers.
Moving to Portland House in March 1994, Isolas grew from a couple of units on the second floor to the entire second floor, Fiduciary on the first floor and a substantial ground floor area for their conference and board and seminar rooms. “We have always been happy to invest in our work space and facilities”.
Peter J. Isola was happy for Peter junior to take the reins of the firm from early on. “My father was very modern in his outlook and I wasn’t inhibited by a patriarchal figure holding me back,” Peter says. “It also became clear to me very soon after I had started that both my brother Albert and my father were better advocates in court than I was.”
Remembering his early days at Isolas, Peter says his father was initially concerned when Peter and Lawrence wanted to set up Fiduciary. Although they already had a corporate trust element, it wasn’t streamlined and Peter wanted to make it efficient and marketable. “I asked him to arrange a meeting with Robert Goldwin at Barclays Bank because I wanted to borrow £50,000, to expand Fiduciary and my father told me that I must be crazy and that the bank wouldn’t lend me the money,” he recalls. “We went to the bank and I said to Robert that I wanted to pay interest only in the first three years. My father was saying to Robert ‘he thinks you are going to lend him the money’, which made me a little bit irritated, but in the end the loan was agreed and the Fiduciary Group never looked back.”
Having been Vice Chairman of the Gibraltar Bar Council, a former President of the Chamber of Commerce as well as currently advising the Government on a number of committees including a Brexit working group, Peter has recently been appointed to the board of the Gibraltar Financial Services Commission (FSC). “That is going to be interesting and time consuming, but it is something which I feel I am more than ready to make a positive contribution,” Peter says. “As Director of a number of gaming, insurance and financial services firms including a gaming plc and the Gibraltar International Bank, I have the relevant experience and knowledge to assist the Commission.”
Far from seeing Brexit as doom and gloom Peter sees it as a challenge, but one that he is confident will ultimately see Gibraltar grow.
He describes how on the 24th June last year, the day after the Referendum, the company had an away day in Marbella. “On the coach on the way there everyone was quite down and depressed, but in the evening everybody came back full of bounce and full of energy after a really great, fun day,” he states, going on to say that he thinks that reflects what happened in Gibraltar. “Initially Brexit was seen as a disaster, and we really didn’t expect it, but then afterwards we thought, actually it’s not that bad, it could bring new opportunities so let’s get on with it and move on.”
The amount of publicity for Gibraltar as the result of Brexit, (Article 50, Clause 22, now Clause 24) Peter sees as being amazing and positive. “What we have found since the 23rd June is actually, surprisingly and unexpectedly, an increase in business,” Peter confirms, giving as an example an enquiry from a company that is in Malta looking to establish in Gibraltar to ensure that if it is a hard Brexit it can passport to the UK. “There will be opportunities and we are an extremely resilient community.”
“What we are trying to achieve in Gibraltar, and something that I think the British Government is extremely supportive about, is an arrangement whereby we can continue to passport into the UK,” he states.
Peter likens Brexit to the late 1990s when Gibraltar was forced by the EU to bring the tax exempt company to an end. “This had been the mainstay of our finance centre and we grandfathered existing companies in 2005,” he states, “and there have been no tax exempt companies since 1st June 2006 but we weathered the storm. Then in January 2011 we brought in our new tax legislation lowering corporate tax to 10% and Gibraltar grew and grew financially. The forced changes and our ability to adapt saw Gibraltar’s revenue grow .”
Despite the uncertainty of Brexit, Peter is also quite confident about the frontier. “Spain remains within the European Union and they have to abide by EU directives,” he states, “and the EU directives which are being applied today at the frontier on reasonable flow etc. will remain.” He went on to explain that we are still an external border of the EU and that an EU a directive, amended in 2016, enforces and enhances this. “We will of course occasionally have a hard time because our neighbour can’t help reacting from time to time, but we should accept it in our stride.”
Keen to highlight that although Isolas as a firm is 125-years old, Peter is proud they are very much at the forefront of new developments, including leading the way on FinTech (financial technology) developments. “As a lawyer I have worked across the whole spectrum, starting off with criminal legal aid work in court, going on to personal injury claims, property, financial services, company law, trust law and gaming law,” Peter explains. “As Senior Partner I am used to contributing when another lawyer seeks assistance and bounces something off me, but I have to defer to the younger generation when it comes to FinTech issues,” he says, laughing. FinTech offers opportunities for businesses using software for financial services, including cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, and with the jurisdiction’s proven track record for innovation in this area it is an attractive post-Brexit opportunity for Gibraltar to rival that of eGaming.
Throughout his career at Isolas, there have been two areas of work that Peter favours. “Undoubtedly, one is the private client, dealing with ultra-high net worth individuals; setting up family offices and structuring their global affairs.” The other, he says, has to be the gaming industry, which he has seen progress since its infancy in Gibraltar in the 80s, and also the growth in the capacity and capability of these gaming companies which contribute so much to our economy.
“The gaming industry has dominated the last ten years of my life and it is the highest factor in the economy of Gibraltar, not only directly but indirectly, because the gaming community has attracted a lot of young people,” Peter says. It is these generally well paid employees who like to spend their money, going out and enjoying life that has contributed to the growth of restaurants and developments such as Ocean Village and Queensway Quay, making Gibraltar a cosmopolitan hub. Asked about the danger of losing the gaming industry post Brexit to other jurisdictions, Peter says that when he spoke at the KPMG eGaming Summit he tackled the issue head-on. “We asked questions about what people thought was the biggest factor that would see eGaming companies leaving Gibraltar,” he states. The biggest threat was deemed to be the frontier, with 53% putting that before VAT or the EU. With 60-70% of the working population of the eGaming companies living in Spain and with no low cost affordable rental housing in Gibraltar, the frontier is obviously the main issue.
Putting a different point of view forward to one usually raised, Peter thinks that the biggest worry, above that of the frontier, would be if Spain left the European Union.
“If that happened they could do what they want at the frontier,” he explains, “but whilst they are within the EU they have to comply with EU directives.”
With several events planned to celebrate the 125th anniversary both here in Gibraltar and in the UK, including a very successful reception at the House of Commons and the publication of a book about Isolas’ history written by Richard Garcia, Peter wants to stress how grateful he is to his family and in particular to his mother.
“Rosie Isola, my mother, has been the matriarch of the family, very much in the image of a strong Italian mamma,” he confirms. “Although she is 90 she is still driving around and controlling everything,” he says, adding proudly that some years she received the MBE in recognition for her charity work with the Red Cross.
Peter also praised the strength of the synergies between himself and his brothers, Lawrence and Albert, as being an important factor. “Lawrence is CEO of Sapphire Networks and also successfully manages and develops property such as Europort and Kings Wharf, whilst Albert was a lawyer with Isolas but is now Minister for Financial Services and Gaming,” he explains. Nowadays there is a raft of younger Isolas coming through their law studies potentially joining what is a tremendous team of partners and associates already driving the firm forward “And of course Joey Garcia, my partner and nephew who is prominent in the funds and FinTech space”.
Something else that Peter is justifiably proud of is the Peter J. Isola Foundation, a charitable foundation set up after the death of his father in 2006, with contributions from friends, clients as well as Isolas and Fiduciary. “Any money raised goes to benefit charities operating within Gibraltar,” Peter states, explaining that they have recently donated money to the Snoezelen multi-sensory rooms in the new Dementia Centre and are committed to supporting the Calpe House development in the UK to the tune of £30,000.