MY Women Legal Counsel Association (MWLEC) is a nonprofit association with the aim of providing support and useful insights to female in-house counsels in Malaysia, in order to help them advance in their chosen careers and increase their marketability. In this interview with Asia Law Portal, MWLEC’s co-founder, experienced corporate lawyer Fazlin Azrimi, explains the inspiration that led her to help women lawyers in Malaysia achieve their professional and personal objectives.
You began your legal career as a corporate lawyer in several boutique law firms before working as a legal adviser in a publicly listed engineering and construction company. Describe what inspired you to pursue a career in the law.
As a young girl around five or six years old, I remember sitting down on the sofa together with my father to watch the latest news. Since my father worked in the government and he himself is an avid reader, I was surrounded by copies of magazines from The Economist, Reader’s Digest, Foreign Affairs and so on. The love for knowledge and reading was cultivated ever since I was young and thanks to my father.
Obviously, I may not recall or understand much of what I was seeing on the TV but I have always been keen and curious to know more about what is happening around me and the world.
As I got older, I can understand the news better I began questioning the injustices around the world. Sometimes it seems as though there are too many – wars, famine, gender equality, global pandemic and many people living without access to basic medical care.
I always love to help people and it has always been ingrained in me to reach out to those who need my help. Studying law has taught me so much about not being fearful of what is right and always trying to do the right thing. I would like to relate this to my favourite quote by Marie Curie:
“Nothing in life is to be feared; it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”
You grew up the daughter of a diplomat, where lived overseas. How did this experience shape who you are today?
My formative years in London have developed my deep appreciation for multicultural perspectives, different languages (I managed to pick up some French in school!), and the value of being a “global citizen”.
Of course, I am mindful of my privilege to be able to get the chance to attend a prep school. For example, I get to meet with so many friends from different countries including teachers as well. These experiences really sparked that curiosity and a goal-setting mindset early on in life. Apart from my elementary French, I also learnt various subjects that ranged from religious studies to Information Design Technology and even Latin!
I wasn’t a total nerd though! I proudly represented the school for netball and rounders and played a role as Helena in Midsummer Night’s Dream (a VERY big deal if you’re 11 years old and adore Shakespeare!)
Living abroad for me means being rooted in a country that was thousands of miles from my own ‘home’, but grounded in the friendships, experience and knowledge that I gained there and which shaped my identity. I returned to Malaysia anchored in this upbringing and continue to grow as a person; always looking at the world with my unique lens.
What motivates you every day? Who is your biggest inspiration in your life?
I want to be the best that I do. I also realise that when you want to be a driven and ambitious person, there is a “cost” when wanting to constantly excel. For example, being a ‘perfectionist’ can be a challenge especially when you are dealing with a new assignment or task that you may not have much experience. In other words, there are moments when you fail. My father has been my constant inspiration for me over the years as a civil servant passionate about education issues. His advice remains fresh in my mind. “You should never compare yourself with anyone else”. If you like to compare yourself with others, there will always be someone better. So, you can only compare yourself with your past self and constantly making improvements daily albeit how small it may be.
In 2015 you discovered Lean in Malaysia, to help Malaysian women including female lawyers advance professionally. Tell us what inspired this focus and how exactly you ended up becoming Head of Legal on voluntary basis between 2018 – 2020 for the Lean In Malaysia chapter?
In 2015, I realised that I really wanted to get a fresh perspective and environment. I enjoyed practising as a lawyer in a law firm but I just thought at that time I want to explore a new workplace like a corporate counsel role in a company instead.
I decided to leave my previous role as an associate in a law firm and wandered around about what I wanted to do next. Essentially, I was forced out of my comfort zone and felt that there is a need for some transition in my career life.
In 2015, Lean In Malaysia organised their inaugural Lean In Malaysia Summit. Honestly, I was not really a fan of networking events so I was skeptical at the time but I thought of giving it a shot. I never looked back at my decision. Lean In is a nonprofit organization founded by Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg after she wrote a book titled Lean In. Sheryl described her experience as a career woman facing challenges in the workplace and even in boardrooms. I recall a story in the book where Sheryl shared her pregnancy experience while working in Google. She only realised how much expectant mothers would have to go through simply because there were no designated parking for expectant mothers at the front of the building! There are many more interesting anecdotes. If you ever get the chance, please read the book if you haven’t already.
The Lean In Malaysia Summit really opened up a new perspective about my purpose, especially a new inspiration on defining my purpose in life. I was so excited to meet so many talented career women from a wide range of industries. Some of them are involved in male dominated industries like engineering and construction. I have never felt so at ease being around with so many like-minded women.
What is your opinion on mentoring? Do you think mentoring is useful? How has mentoring benefited you as a legal practitioner?
A year after I attended the Lean In Malaysia Summit I became more involved in the Lean In Malaysia’s activities including signing up for their first mentoring programme also known as the Lean In Career Programme (LICP). I was paired with a mentor, Shelagh Macfarlane who happened to be a Canadian woman with a string of certificates in life coaching and counselling.
The whole six weeks of the programme coaching not only led to me rediscovering who I was, it was also a time when I realised that there is so much more that I can achieve. I realise mentoring has been beneficial in helping me highlight my “blind spots” and pinpoint to areas that I may have neglected or missed out in my usual daily life.
To illustrate, Shelagh suggested that I should focus on core values that I hold on to out of different value sets out there. We are all busy people trying to accomplish goals in our daily life. So, it may be good to look at the ‘rear view’ mirror once in a while to really check on our value system. In my case, I chose charity, integrity and recognition as they form part of my core value system.
The point is different people experience childhood differently which includes internalising challenges and adversity as well. For example, twin boys that grew up in a family with an abusive father may turn out differently depending on how each of the boys internalise their childhood experience. One child may say that since his father is an abusive or alcoholic then might give up on life as a failure or a loss cause. Another child could completely take up a different perspective and say that he wants to have a better life simply because he did not have a good childhood. Core values are essential in our life.
The exercise helps you clarify your thinking process and distinguish what are the important things in life that I should be most concerned about.
I enjoyed mentoring so much that I decided to give back. Last year I got involved as a mentor at Closing The Gap, a nonprofit formed by one of the fellows at Teach For Malaysia focusing on education inequity. Even as a mentor I am learning so much and I really think you should consider mentoring as well.
You later founded MY Legal Counsel Association (MWLEC) focusing on empowering female in house counsels in Malaysia. Can you share why you decided to form this nonprofit entity? What you’ve accomplished so far, and what your plans are for the future.
The career programme through the mentorship led me to set up MY Women Legal Counsel Association (MWLEC) (pronounced as ‘molek’ in Malay which stands for ‘beautiful in English) with my co-founder, Tan Yew Aik.
MWLEC is a non-profit association with the aim of providing support and useful insights to female in-house counsels in Malaysia, in order to help them advance in their chosen careers and increase their marketability. Through the platform, MWLEC provides its members with the latest legal updates, news, as well as valuable training programs in order to stay relevant in this competitive field.
The association was formed with a group of other young women who have, through experience, realized and acknowledged that there exists a wide spectrum of challenges within an in-house legal environment. The association is a platform that empowers women to advance in their careers and achieve greater fulfilment professionally and individually.
What advice do you have for young women in Malaysia aspiring to a career in law?
I like this quote by Joseph Story, a United States Supreme Court Justice.
“The law is a jealous mistress and requires long and constant courtship. It is not to be won by trifling favors, but by lavish homage.”
Anyone seeking to embark on a career in law should be ready to work hard and persevere.
For women especially, the challenge may be more depending on the legal practice that the women intend to practice. I recall some of my colleagues that wanted to specialise in criminal law but eventually decided to venture into a different practice area simply because they found the area too challenging for women. I am not saying it cannot be done. It just means that you have to develop a certain firm belief in what you want to do in your chosen practice area.
There are constant changes and updates in legal development around the world affecting our profession that we are supposed to keep up with. As a legal practitioner I can confess that there were times when I had those moments too when I just thought I should just give up. Or even think that law is probably not my cup of tea. But there is always this “pulling factor” that brings me back to the ground.
Certain people’s perception is that law is such a mundane subject but I am quite lucky to be part of a dynamic, vibrant environment that I really enjoy working. Vibrant workplace connotes energy, positivity and growth-characteristics that we desire for the environment where we spend most of our time.
It is critical to understand what the needs and objectives of your client are and to be able to communicate effectively so everyone is on the same page and expectations are realistic. Planning is key, as well as a mind-set of continual improvement, asking:
How can we do this better?
Are there different ways to do this, such as leveraging technology or to reduce costs?
As an example, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused an unprecedented disruption for businesses everywhere. It is imperative for us lawyers to be able to assume leadership and help our stakeholders to handle all sorts of crisis scenarios with flexibility with the planning for the future in mind.
About Fazlin Azrimi Abu Hassan
Fazlin Azrimi Abu Hassan is the co-founder of MY Women Legal Counsel Association (a nonprofit formed to empower female in house counsels in Malaysia) and head of legal (voluntary basis) for the Lean In Malaysia chapter from 2018-2020 (a nonprofit founded by Sheryl Sandberg to reduce workplace gender inequality). She can be contacted at email@example.com.