Datuk Dr Nik Norzrul Thani
Chairman and Senior Partner of Zaid Ibrahim & Co.
“…I changed my studies from accountancy to marketing and then to law. At that time it was difficult to explain to my sponsors the raison d’etre of these changes. I was lucky I had understanding sponsors who were enthused by inter-disciplinary practices. But it was still a challenge. Further, I married whilst I was a student and it was difficult but I was lucky that my wife, Melor, was very supportive. In fact, she helped me with my notes and as she was working while I was studying, she assisted me financially as well. It made us stronger and I can safely say that enabled us to face challenges together, and to face any adversity…”
1. Tell us about yourself
I am the Chairman and Senior Partner of Zaid Ibrahim & Co. (a member of ZICOlaw) with offices in Singapore, Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, Melbourne and Sydney as well as associate offices in Jakarta, Yangon, Phnom Penh, Laos and Vientiane. I also serve as chairman and director of several public listed and government linked companies.
2. Why law?
I have always found law fascinating. I like to read and it is sine qua non that the skills that one embodies from law are applicable in any arena, be it in daily rigours or the intricacies of the corporate world. And I always thought of law as a discipline that can be a springboard to a life of honour and intregity. It is, in fact, an honourable profession.
3. You were a Visiting Fulbright Scholar at Harvard Law School from 1996 to 1997. Talk to us about that. What do you remember most from the experience?
It was a wonderful experience. Prior to my sojourn at Harvard, I was the Dean of Student Affairs at the International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM) and was very much pre-occupied with administrative matters. Harvard has an academic ecosystem that prods one to pursue research and I was able to complete my book during my tenure as a Visiting Fulbright Scholar there. It was also an opportunity for me to interact with distinguished academics at the Islamic Legal Studies Program such as Dr Frank Vogel and Prof Samuel Hayes and I found the experience very illuminating. Traversing the libraries at Harvard whilst researching on Islamic Finance was an exciting journey for me. My stay at Harvard was truly enriching.
4. You benefited from the British and the American education systems. What are their similarities and differences? How should students think about them?
I think both systems have their strengths. What particularly impressed me was the fact that within the American system, the interaction with the industrial realm was more profound – I found the professors demonstrating extensive industrial experience whilst teaching the applicability of academic concepts to the students. There were in fact a large number of practising lawyers who were teaching at Harvard on a periodic basis and this illustrates the commitment, normally from the alumni, to share and disseminate knowledge with the students. I also find the “Socratic” and case study method very refreshing as it enabled classroom participation. I was in Harvard from 1996-1997 but by then I could already see the importance of information technology in the legal world. At that time I saw a large number of students bringing laptops to classes to take down notes – that was pioneering to me. Bear in mind that this was nearly 20 years ago.
On a personal level I find that there is a degree of informality in the American system. It is more of a general observation, whereas the British system emphasizes on tradition. I remembered when I first attended a summer course at Harvard, I was wearing a suit and a tie. I felt perplexed that I was the only one in formal attire, save for another Japanese student. It was more embarrassing when the tutor arrived in khakis and slippers! That shows the informality and openness of the American system.
“…What particularly impressed me was the fact that within the American system, the interaction with the industrial realm was more profound – I found the professors demonstrating extensive industrial experience whilst teaching the applicability of academic concepts to the students…”
5. Your career trajectory has been diverse and colourful. You have worked in a bank, an accounting firm, a law school and now at a law firm. How was the transition and what was the thinking behind that?
Yes, after doing accountancy, I worked in an audit firm and a bank. I then went to the United Kingdom to complete the Chartered Institute of Marketing exams. I then pursued law and was admitted as a Barrister at Law of Lincoln’s Inn in 1985 and called to the Malaysian bar as an advocate and solicitor of the High Court of Malaya in 1986. I then practised for a while, and subsequently went to complete my PhD at SOAS, University of London, in 1993. Upon my return, I taught at IIUM and then rejoined practice.
I did not really plan to “zig-zag” throughout my studies and career but after finding a “home” in law, I found that the other disciplines I was exposed to made me understand issues in a non-legal perspective, particularly in the financial sense. I felt I was able to render more commercially realistic advice and insights. Now I am a director and chairman of several government and public listed companies I find my insights, which are not necessarily embedded in the law, have more resonance and relevance in the corporate world.
It was not easy to change professions but luckily I had the opportunity to switch careers and like now, to not only practice law but to be a director, a lecturer and a writer. These diversities have made my life a fulfilling one and made it more interesting.
6. You have also spent time both in academia and in legal practice? How would you compare them?
Upon my return from Harvard and after seeing the practical approach of several professors there, I felt it was imperative, at least for me, to return to practice, to marry my academic exposure to the professional arena. I was fortunate to be offered a position with the international law from Baker & McKenzie. Subsequently I joined Zaid Ibrahim & Co, where I am now.
As an academic, we are able to research and discuss legal issues and concepts that can at times be a beacon for jurisprudential underpinnings which are the important elements for the legal domain. In practice, however, we do not have the luxury of time – the issues are specific with strict deadlines. And the advice would have to be commercially applicable. It therefore requires a different mindset and paradigm. On a personal level however, I have been able to write more books when I am in practice as opposed to when I was at the university. I attribute this to the fact that the experience I went through, my cases and transactions, especially in Islamic finance, were pioneering and needed to be shared with the general world. That prompted me to write on issues that I face in practice. However I do endeavour to be in touch with the academia – I was a Chevening Fellow at Oxford University from 2004-2005 and I had been a Visiting Professor at Sydney University and University of Malaya. One can say I am a pseudo academic.
7. As a leading lawyer in Islamic Finance, what would you say about the current state and the prospect of this industry?
Islamic finance has metamorphosed from a niche speciality industry to a global phenomenon. It is now at its “internationalisation” stage wherein I can see numerous jurisdictions implementing Islamic finance in their respective countries. What is particularly satisfying for me is to see Islamic finance becoming a viable alternative to conventional finance, and is a financial tool for Fortune 500 companies. We can say Islamic finance is now “mainstream”, and that to me is an achievement.
8. What were some of the biggest professional and personal challenges you faced?
On a professional level, when I returned to practice after ten years as an academic, the transition was very challenging. I had to re-learn practice again and I had to even turn to my former students who were practising for precedents and guidance. My family was very supportive as I had to work long hours to catch up but I always believe that one can never stop seeking knowledge and even though it was challenging, the experience made me a better person.
On a personal level, I changed my studies from accountancy to marketing and then to law. At that time it was difficult to explain to my sponsors the raison d’etre of these changes. I was lucky I had understanding sponsors who were enthused by inter-disciplinary practices. But it was still a challenge. Further, I married whilst I was a student and it was difficult but I was lucky that my wife, Melor, was very supportive. In fact, she helped me with my notes and as she was working while I was studying, she assisted me financially as well. It made us stronger and I can safely say that enabled us to face challenges together, and to face any adversity.
9. What is the best advice you have ever received?
When I was at San Francisco recently I saw a monument dedicated to Yoda from Star Wars at Union Square with the following words – “Do or do not, there is no try”. It is akin to the best advice I have ever received – “the greatest risk in life is in not taking one”. I have taken risks by changing courses and careers throughout my life.
I have been lucky that these “calculated” risks turned out fine so I am a believer in trusting your gut and deep insights – as such I have no regrets. In the end if there is an opportunity, seize it and give your best shot. At least you tried.
10. What advice would you give to aspiring legal practitioners?
Never stop seeking knowledge and remember that law is not an island. Law is an integral component of life and as such, be sure to widen our knowledge beyond the basic scriptures and tomes. Immerse oneself in other disciplines as well. And remember that the law is an honourable profession – act with honour and integrity and do not be afraid to take the high moral ground – one can never be faulted if we act honourably.
11. As FAAM seeks to promote collaborative opportunities among members, what interaction would you find interesting?
I think Fulbrighters should interact more and I find the initiatives by FAAM very commendable. I am happy to host Fulbright scholars for an attachment or training at my office or at the companies that I am affiliated with. Such cross fertilisation would enhance relationships whilst upgrading knowledge generally. So opening up for attachments, especially for those Fulbrighters from the academia to the industrial world is an idea that I hope FAAM can look into.
“…I think Fulbrighters should interact more and I find the initiatives by FAAM very commendable. I am happy to host Fulbright scholars for an attachment or training at my office or at the companies that I am affiliated with. This cross fertilisation would enhance relationships whilst upgrading knowledge generally…”
Photo source(s): ZICOlaw, The Star Publications.
Credits to the FAAM Social Media Team.