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LLM Students in Focus: Malalai Wassil’s Purpose Driven Mission

Image: Georgetown University, where Wassil completed her LLM

This article is the second in a series of first-person testimonials from overseas in-house counsel about their career journeys and their decision to obtain a Master of Laws (LLM). Read about Eugenio Gomez-Tarragona's journey here.

I  was born in Kabul, Afghanistan, when Afghanistan's glory days of peace and independence were coming to an end and being replaced with another rendition of The Great Game, the historic battle for Central Asia between world powers. When I was six, my family and I were forced to escape from Afghanistan due to the Soviet-Afghan war. We were fortunate to move to the United States, where I had the good fortune to receive quality education and extraordinary mentors. My father, my greatest role model, instilled the values of education and service in me at a young age. He had studied law at Kabul University and had obtained an MPA from the University of Connecticut, degrees that he used to serve the greater good as district and provincial governor of a number of provinces in Afghanistan, and as head of Afghanistan's Civil Service Commission during the pre-Communist era. Throughout the two decades of being in school, especially during my undergraduate at Trinity College and law school years at New York Law School, I wanted to return to Afghanistan in the hopes of giving back to my birth-country. In 2005, my dream of moving back to Afghanistan became a reality. A decade later, as I look back, my three most memorable experiences in Afghanistan were teaching commercial law at the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF), serving as the founding board member of an investment climate facility, and serving as the chief legal officer of Telecom Development Corporation Afghanistan, Ltd. 

I started my journey in Afghanistan at the Ministry of Energy and Water where I served as a legal advisor. For the first several years, my career was centered on legal and regulatory reform targeted at achieving private sector development. Frustrated by the challenges of government and donor bureaucracies, I decided to focus entirely on legal work and established the first female-owned law practice in the country. In addition, I started teaching commercial law as adjunct professor at the American University of Afghanistan. Teaching came naturally to me and serving the brightest future legal minds was incredibly rewarding; however, after three semesters, I stopped teaching because the law firm's work became very demanding. Even though I enjoyed a reputation of delivering results and getting the impossible achieved, the successful track record also came with a price. I noticed that I had become very short tempered and had lost touch with my feminine side; I was working around the clock and engaging in litigious battles in a male-dominated society. Further, I felt a void by not serving a higher purpose I had set out for myself. 

T he Telecom Development Corporation Afghanistan, Ltd., better known as Roshan, is one of the largest telecom operators in Afghanistan. Working for Roshan happened quite serendipitously. While serving as a board member of Harakat, an investment climate facility funded by the UK's Department for International Development DFID, I developed a great working relationship with the CEO of Roshan, Mr. Karim Khoja, who also served as chairman of the board. Mr. Khoja encouraged me to apply for a vacant in-house counsel position at Roshan. Since I had already represented Roshan as outside counsel and was familiar with the company staff, the decision to close my private practice and become part of an organization that would give me joy in serving the people of Afghanistan was a dream. 

My role as the company's first female chief legal officer coincided with the 10-year anniversary of the company's operations in Afghanistan. Impressively, Roshan's staff was composed of nearly 60 percent local and over 20 percent female staff — a major accomplishment for an international company that was truly dedicated to investing in the war-torn country. My responsibilities included managing the day-to-day affairs of my department, sitting on the management's operations committee, and serving as corporate secretary to the board of directors. I had also undertaken initiatives in corporate efficiency and risk management and was responsible for deliverables outside my department specific functions. Perhaps most exciting was being part of the business and entrepreneurial decision-making of the company that gave me multi-faceted work, which fit very well with my personality.

I had developed an instinct for providing swift yet thoughtful legal solutions and found those skills worked well in my new assignment. I also found the greatest assets of the company to be its leadership and the incredibly positive and a driven team of some of the brightest young men and women, both local and expatriate, staff members who truly cared about Afghanistan. 

The experience with Roshan was unique for many reasons. As a telecom operator, Roshan contributes to enhancing the lives of men and women across Afghanistan by connecting them with one other inside the country and outside world. The Internet as a social media and telecommunications platform has played a significant role in the rebuilding of Afghanistan from decades of war. Roshan's greatest contribution is that it was founded as a social enterprise and became Afghanistan's first B-Corp with a targeted dedication to both financial and socio-economic prosperity. Impact investment and private sector development are the hallmark of all initiatives His Highness, the Agha Khan establishes across the world. His Highness envisioned Roshan's social enterprise model when he approached Monaco Telecom and Telia Sonera to become shareholders with the Agha Khan Fund for Economic Development (AKFED) in establishing Roshan in Afghanistan.

The company's slogan "Roshan, Nazdik Shodan" translates to "Roshan, bringing you closer" is evident everyday in its daily operation. In addition to providing telecom service to millions of subscribers, Roshan puts aside a budget annually to serve local community needs and is very proud of its dedicated corporate social responsibility programs, especially for children who have suffered the most as a result of the war. During the period that I worked at Roshan, the company was constructing local playgrounds throughout communities in major cities. In previous years, wells, schools, and e-learning centers have been built around the country. The company also serves over half a million meals per year with Afghan NGO Aschiana, an organization that supports orphans and street children. 

There are those who read about Roshan and shareholders like the AKFED, and inevitably admirable its positive impact on local communities. Yet, when you actually experience being part of a corporation that balances achieving profits with serving others, work and career jargon is replaced by passion and a purpose-driven mission. Once you have served as in-house counsel for a social enterprise company, it sets a bar for your legal career. 

At Roshan, there was a career path to become a senior leader in the company, but I was conflicted because I wanted to go back to school to study business. Mr. Khoja, a Harvard Business School alumnus, fully supported the idea and even mapped out a plan that would not take me away from being present in the job. 

Yet, when you actually experience being part of a corporation that balances achieving profits with serving others, work and career jargon is replaced by passion and a purpose-driven mission.

B y the spring of 2014, the combination of my father's deteriorating health and the security situation in Afghanistan left me no choice but to resign from Roshan. It was an extremely difficult decision to leave Afghanistan and a job that I was passionate about. I had worked very hard to manifest the professional woman I had become, and leaving behind a decade of hard work was very challenging. 

The decision to apply for an LLM at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, was just as serendipitous as working for Roshan. The official application deadline had passed, yet a friend, the former president of Trinity College where I had received my undergraduate degree, advised me to contact Georgetown to see if it was still accepting applications. When I met with the assistant dean for admissions at Georgetown, she encouraged me to apply and reminded me "when one door closes, another opens." 

The Georgetown LLM in international business and economics law offered the perfect transition to gain perspective on what I had achieved abroad. I am grateful to have graduated from such a fine academic institution. Gaining a wealth of knowledge from both fellow classmates and professors has proven invaluable. My professors were some of the most accomplished professionals, each serving as leaders to emulate; being in the classroom with such professors, we were able to fully immerse into the professor's respective fields and learn other facets of the law that may not always be evident with traditional American law programs. The LLM program allowed me to take a class in virtually every area of work I had performed in Afghanistan and has offered me a unique opportunity to carve a path for my new chapter in life and career.

In my opinion, it is important for international students to pursue an LLM, not just to enhance their education but more importantly to expand their own footprint in the international arena. It is equally important for Americans to pursue an international LLM not only because it supports the cross-border transactional work that is part of a law practice, but also because it allows American lawyers to go outside this vast continent and play a bigger role in the international community — a role that transcends the "job" and impacts and influences social and economic development in other countries; a role that connects with other citizens of the world with whom mentoring, and exchanging of ideas and values can serve as an impetus for change and bettering the world collectively. 

When I reflect on the three different legal hats I have worn, there is no doubt that the in-house counsel experience has been the most rewarding, especially when it involves a company as unique as Roshan. It allowed me to interact with extraordinary people inside and outside the company, and to safeguard the company's interests. And because the company's values aligned with my own, I felt myself on a purpose driven mission that was an integral part of my life, joining myself to a collective responsibility to further the company's business and social impact. 

As I combine the LLM with my Afghanistan experience, I am now working toward establishing an international entity where I will serve as in-house counsel and use the law to socially impact and economically empower women in developing countries, including Afghanistan.

About the Author

Malalai Wassil is currently an external advisor at Telecom Development Company Afghanistan.



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