From LLB at SOAS to Vice President of a legal tech firm

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Being a law student during a pandemic is an interesting experience, to say the least. Most days are spent in front of a screen reading or listening. The remainder is spent with your elbows on the table with your chin resting on your hand, wondering “what will the future look like?” 

Fortunately for myself, I recently had the opportunity to learn about the life of a SOAS alumnus and his journey from SOAS to the top of the legal profession. Al Karim Makhani graduated from SOAS in 2004: afterwards, he attended Nottingham Law School before breaking into the legal profession as a trainee solicitor at Stephenson Harwood LLP. Today, he occupies the prestigious position of Vice President of consulting and information governance at Transperfect Legal Solutions. Recently I had a conversation with Al-Karim regarding his time at SOAS and his career since. 

What initially attracted you to study law at SOAS? 

There are obvious things that any 17-year-old is attracted by. I was born and raised in a small town in the midlands. SOAS was in the heart of one of the greatest cities in the world. During the open day, you could feel a vibrancy to the campus and culture unmatched by other schools I’d visited. I remember being struck by the sheer diversity of the students and faculty. That was something I hadn’t really experienced before. And then there’s the more substantive stuff. SOAS was named number 1 for law in the Guardian that year. It had a great reputation for teaching and research. I could read a traditional subject like law, taking mandatory modules like property and tort. At the same time, I could learn about legal systems in Asia and Africa, ethnic minorities, and the law and benefit from several “out there” language courses. 

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The vibrant central London SOAS campus.

If you had to choose one particular element of studying at SOAS which prepared you for the future, what would it be? 

Diversity… For decades, the word has been associated with ticking boxes to show the world your organisation is not racist. Diversity, pluralism, and inclusion were not just words or concepts at SOAS – they were the lifeblood of the university. Apart from the human element of it – that all human beings should be treated equally, fairly, justly –, there is the more practical application. Diversity is central to your ability to think. Every human being is different. The greater the difference, the more there is to learn from one another. The world is as interconnected as it has ever been. Planes may be grounded, but immediately before the pandemic, the global movement of people was unprecedented. The world is getting small. Arguably, technology has shown this even further during the pandemic. You can have what is now considered a normal meeting with people from 4 continents at the touch of a button. Being aware that each of those people is a sum of wildly different experiences and being able to work together is a hugely valuable asset. Furthermore, it breeds a way of thinking. Not always looking for the obvious, black and white solution. That’s where true success lies. Those who can solve problems that others cannot. And diversity can and should be a cornerstone to that creativity. 

While working at Stephenson Harwood (SH), you had a particular focus on jurisdictions in Asia. Was knowledge/curiosity of these jurisdictions developed at SOAS?

I never thought it would be and I’d be lying if I said that was the grand plan from day dot. However, I knew SH had Asian offices and so it formed part of the process to find the right training contract. For a medium-sized firm, it had an enviable number of trainee secondments including Hong Kong and Singapore. And then, as with any other law grad – it was about finding a training contract in an extremely competitive market – so there was an element of “where will my application be strongest”. Importantly, my research led me to the fact that in addition to their presence in Asia – a number of their clients were from there. That’s maybe an even bigger indication of the regional importance to any firm. 

Work involving HK, Japan, and Singapore became the focus of my practice. The way I fell into it actually does have a fairly significant SOAS connection. As a trainee, I was dragged into a last-minute meeting to take some notes. The first thing of note was that the client was one of the firm’s whales. The kind of client where heaven and earth are moved to keep them happy. The second thing of note was that the matter related to a dispute in HK and one of the issues on the table was around leveraging elements of the Chinese traditional law of “Tongs” into pleadings before a common law judicial system. The client had already lambasted a few extremely senior partners from the firm, so it was with a shaky hand (and irregular heartbeat) I offered up my view. Which included seeking an opinion from a former Professor of mine at SOAS who specialised in this area. We instructed him as an expert and found a way of running the argument. We still lost, but that wasn’t the point! The client was impressed. 

Sure. Law, like every other industry, has had to evolve to keep pace with the exponential change of the Big Data era. Lawyers are in the business of advising clients – whether it’s for a dispute, a regulatory investigation, or a commercial transaction. And this cannot be done without understanding the relevant information. The factual matrix. The context. Where data comes in huge quantities it is impossible to do this manually. Whilst some law firms would still love to turn every page and charge clients for the pleasure (the billable hour model is dying), most clients are ahead of the game. Their businesses are progressive, tech-enabled. They will not tolerate lawyers living in the dark ages. To be clear – robots are not going to replace lawyers. But technology empowers lawyers to achieve more. 

As a TLS VP, I lead our legal technology divisions across EMEA and APAC. I am a member of various professional bodies, think tanks and regularly speak and write on legal tech issues. As I alluded to above – without a working appreciation of diversity – I don’t think I would have truly grasped the way tech was going to change the legal market when I did. I advise law firms and in-house teams on a spectrum of legal technology issues including – preservation of data, defensibility of collection, ESI strategy, disclosure rules, court applications, inter-partes negotiations, protocols, cross-border data transfers, data privacy, and the strategic deployment of technology. On the corporate legal side, he advises GC teams on innovation, strategy, panel appointments, DSARs, cost budgeting, and better protecting/leveraging their internal data universe. Internally, I’m tasked with improving the delivery of our legal services. This includes assessing and acquiring new technology as well as regional growth across EMEA and APAC. 

With the gift of hindsight, do you have any words of wisdom to endow on to the current generations of law students at SOAS? Any piece of advice, or something you wish you would have known about this particular career path.

Always be curious. No one knows everything. We live in an age where you can find the answer to almost anything at your fingertips. But if you can’t, then ask someone. And when you do, be responsible enough to check the veracity of the answer. The world may be at our fingertips, but it’s sometimes hard to differentiate between what’s real and fake. Work hard. There really isn’t any replacement. Calvin Coolidge said it better than I ever could. And be kind. It doesn’t cost anything. You never know when you’ll be in need of kindness yourself. There’s a great book that goes the next step and explains the scientific link between kindness and success – Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success by Adam Grant. And lastly, be yourself. As Adam Grant says, everyone else is taken anyway!

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