My name is Siti Salwa Mawardee and I graduated from the International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM) and proceeded to practice law not long after my graduation. Although my foundation started as a science student, little did I know that the next few years were going to be so colourful, with so many great, life-changing experiences. After three years of practice, I decided to join in-house and my first in-house experience was with Amanah Ikhtiar Malaysia (AIM), a local trust body incorporated under the Trustees (Incorporation) Act 1952. I’ve always thought that it was both strange and exciting that working as a legal adviser in-house had never made me feel or act less as a lawyer. In fact, it felt as good as ‘practicing’, with numerous lessons and experience that I appreciate a lot. Each and every one grew me, professionally and personally. I started to realize the significance of trust law in a wider context and also grew interest in other branches of law such as employment/ industrial relations which I found very intriguing. After AIM, I’d always wonder, if I’d ever get the chance to working in a trust organization again. I’d never would’ve imagined working at a non-profit, helping the poor and underprivileged. My experience there taught me that there’s more to just serving the community and the country. On one hand, you are doing charity-based work, and the other, mastering the law of trust through work, and then some. As such, upon seeing the opportunity to work with YaPEIM, I thought that I could not miss it.
You are Head of Group Legal at Yayasan Pembangunan Ekonomi Islam Malaysia (YaPEIM). Tell us about YaPEIM and your responsibilities there.
YaPEIM is a trust body founded by the Malaysian government in 1976, incorporated under the Trustees (Incorporation) Act 1952, and restructured in 1984 by the then Prime Minister, Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad. Its main objective is to help the development of Muslim economics through various means, including charity and social business. Although both AIM and YaPEIM have the same incorporating law and somewhat charity objective, they quite markedly differ in terms of structure and activities. This has elevated my interest as I believe YaPEIM could provide a more diverse experience and I could contribute more and differently. As the Head of Group Legal, I’m responsible to advise the Board of Trustees and Management in diverse legal issues while managing the Legal department on a day-to-day basis. My responsibility also extends to affiliated entities such as companies and cooperative bodies. While the general theme would be mostly on trust law and trusteeship, other similar common topics include contracts and commercials, companies, employment or industrial matters, corporate and governance. In addition, I’m also secretary of the Audit and Risk Committee, as well as the Nomination and Remuneration Committee. Besides the Legal Affairs Division of the Prime Minister’s Department, YaPEIM is also under the purview of the Minister at the Prime Minister’s Department (Religious Affairs). YaPEIM also receive funds, mostly in terms of loans, from the Government. Therefore, my job also requires me to engage with different Government departments and agencies, usually called ‘stakeholders’. Mostly, they relate to legal requirements and compliance issues.
What led you to pursue an in-house legal career?
When AIM invited me for a job interview, I thought it was a great opportunity for both my professional and economic advancement. Hence, I took the leap of faith and I’ve never regretted it. Honestly, trust law may not have been my favourite subject in law school, but it definitely grew on me along the way.
You describe yourself as an ambivert, a keen reader, lover of the law and its philosophy. And sports with an appreciation of the arts. Tell us more about this.
One of my most significant life lessons is that, while managing issues and risks, I have become more balanced, rational and emphatic. As much as I enjoy my work, I must say it’s also very demanding and challenging. My work teaches me to be patient, to listen carefully and find solutions. In order to find balance between my working and personal lives, I must teach and remind myself that I need to find the balance within me, first. While I enjoy good company, at the same time, I always appreciate time alone to reflect and unwind. Reading has always been my favourite pastime since I was a very young child, thanks to my mother. Our family placed a high value on education, and books and stationery were the most common gifts we received throughout our childhood. I wouldn’t complain because books were and still are my escape, even if I can’t enjoy them as much as I would like. I read all kinds of reading materials, including poetry. At this age where most people have a multitude of choices to read through various devices, I prefer to physically flip through pages of books, every time. As I was studying law, I realized that it is one of the oldest and most important aspects of our lives, which contributed to modern legislation. Just like other aspects, law keeps on developing and revolutionising, and it’s always captivating. As a fan of jurisprudence and philosophy, I believe every day is a school day and I am grateful to be part of the legal profession. I’ve always been interested in the reason a law is being made and the values it brings. Besides reading, I also love sports, and mainly enjoy badminton and swimming. I have always been active since my schooldays and continue to be so whenever I can. I enjoy watching games and sports; I’m lucky to have a husband and kids who enjoy sports and outdoor activities too. I love performing arts too, particularly theatre. My first dabble in performing arts was during my matriculation year, where I helped write scripts, and it was during my junior year that I first directed a legal-themed play. I then went on to join a production to perform at an open theatre festival, which I consider my debut performance. I’m proud to tell that I won the Most Promising Actress Award for the said act. I would say that, if I were not a lawyer, I would be a performing artiste, majoring in theatre.
What role does technology play in your practice?
I must admit that technology plays an important role in my practice as it helps connecting us with knowledge faster and efficiently. As a legal adviser, I’m regularly asked for legal opinions, and research and technology has been handy in terms of getting the work done and gathering facts and information.
Have you utilized outsourced legal services to augment your in-house capabilities?
Yes, I have, as I believe legal practitioners have the advantage of wider skills and horizons. Since they often deal with various niches and industries, it’s almost inevitable that I may need their services to complement our internal capabilities. Furthermore, their contacts with various clients are value added too, which I believe would also be an advantage to them.
How do you go about selecting external legal support services?
I’ve recently developed a new policy where we provide for certain criteria that each firm must fulfill. Generally, I would usually go for mid- to big-sized firms, with varied area of practice and an experience of not less than five years. The firm may first approach us to state their interest to become a panel, or we may also approach any firm to offer empanelment, subject to further verification. Usually, we would also invite the partner(s) for a small engagement or interview to know each other better. We may then request for quotations from any of the list of panels and the Board of Trustees will have the final say for appointment, subject to our internal policies.
Do you actively network among other in-house counsel and private practice lawyers? If so, what types of networking events do you find most valuable?
Yes, I do. I have many friends working in the same industry too—private practitioners, in-house counsels and judges. Through them, I’ve had the opportunity to get to know more people and I can fairly say that I connect with them. This is particularly useful in terms of exchanging and sharing ideas, knowledge and experience. While technology helps us work better in so many ways, I believe the human touch and connection are similarly or more important, even. In fact, technology would be static if people do not change. I would say, I find conferences and workshops most valuable. You meet all kinds of professionals, big or small, gathering to gain and exchange knowledge. I also prefer small or low-key workshops which are semi-formal, if possible as it’s easier to connect and learn things more intimately.
What career advice do you have for aspiring in-house counsel who are currently studying law or in private practice?
Aspiring in-house counsels: please do not give up on your first attempt. Some people think in-house is mostly the same, old routine and find them repetitively mundane. But I think at this age, it’s highly diverse and terrifically fast-paced, therefore you must persevere, be pro-active, be confident and always observe your integrity at all times. I must say, Legal is one of the most important departments in an organization, where people are always coming (to you) for advice. Do not feel burdened to ‘give in’ to what Management might expect or is more inclined to want you to do. Always advise to the best interests of the company. Do not join office politics! No matter how tempting it is, as it mostly ends with bad results and may diminish your integrity. Whenever you feel stuck, or are in doubt, always take a step back, and take your time to think. It’s not wrong to reach out for help. Always be a good listener.
What are your career goals for the next decade?
I would want to be part of the C-suite, the Chief Legal Officer, no matter where I’m working. I have not eliminated thoughts of running my own firm, but I always keep my options open and hope that I could contribute more and better in the near future. In order to do so, I also have plans to continue studies in law or other fields.