Melvina Fam is a Senior Legal Counsel of Sarawak Energy. In her past legal practice, she advised and represented clients ranging from individuals to world leading international companies across various industries in contentious and non-contentious matters. She is a Barrister-at-Law of the Bar of England and Wales, an Advocate and Solicitor of the High Court of Malaya and an Advocate of the High Court of Sabah and Sarawak. She is also a member of the Honourable Society of Lincoln’s Inn and the Advocates Association of Sarawak. In this interview with Asia Law Portal, Melvina explains her practice focus, what led her to an in-house career, the challenges and opportunities that she enjoys working with, and how technology impacts her work.
What inspired you to pursue a career in law?
I find law to be fascinating as it is not just about rules and regulations but also about rights, justice, and the understanding of society and human behaviour. Law reflects societal development and deals with intricate issues involving morality, philosophy, and ethics.
My belief in the importance and ever-present nature of law in life is what inspired me to pursue a career in law. While pursuing my studies in London, I offered pro-bono services at a Legal Advice Clinic to gain practical experience. One of my responsibilities was answering calls from those who needed legal advice, mostly vulnerable senior citizens and jotting down their enquiries before passing them to solicitors for further action. I remember answering a call from an elderly woman, who asked – “My husband just died a few days ago – there’s a load of debt to be settled. What should I do?” I learned two things from this encounter: the power that the law has over people’s lives and, as cliché as it sounds, pursuing a career in law would give me the knowledge and means to make a positive difference in people’s lives.
Another motivator for me to pursue a career in law is that it provides me with personal fulfilment. Dealing with the complexity of legal doctrines and rules and coming up with feasible legal solutions at the same time is intellectually stimulating. It is a career that allows me to constantly learn and improve my thinking, knowledge, and skills.
What is your legal practice focus?
I started my legal practice as an intellectual property lawyer at Messrs. Lee Hishammuddin Allen & Gledhill, a Legal 500 recognised leading law firm in Malaysia. My portfolio at the time included prosecution of trademarks, development of intellectual property management policies and frameworks, regulatory compliance work as well as the reviewing and drafting of commercial contracts.
In 2017, I joined the litigation practice of Messrs. Loke King Goh & Partners Advocates (LKGP), after being admitted as an Advocate of the High Court of Sabah & Sarawak that same year. At LKGP, I was exposed to a wide range of general litigation works, including contractual and tortious claims, debt recovery matters, labour & industrial disputes, as well as matrimonial disputes.
In late 2019, I moved in-house and joined the Legal, Land & Company Secretary Department of Sarawak Energy. Here, I provide legal advice and support for renewable energy projects in Southeast Asia, focusing on power sale and purchase, joint venture, and commercial transactions.
What led you to an in-house career?
An opportunity for an in-house role came after I was in legal practice for a number of years, and I decided it was the right time for a change. I wanted to know what it would be like to work within a business and collaborate closely with an organisation’s business team.
I was very interested in seeing the decision-making process from a commercial perspective to understand how it leads to the ultimate business outcome – something absent from legal practice. Typically, external legal counsels are called to assist their clients when a legal issue arises half-way through a transaction, or they advise on a specific portion of a deal. As an in-house counsel, I can now participate in business transactions from beginning to end, fully comprehending the rationale and considerations behind every business strategy and decision.
By being an in-house counsel, I also get to see how my work is being put into practice and whether it has a meaningful impact on the business. This gives me a sense of achievement.
What types of challenges and opportunities do you enjoy working with?
I enjoy working with challenges and opportunities that push my boundaries, allowing me to gain new perspectives and grow as an individual. Through this process, I discover my strengths and identify areas of improvement, especially in relation to my knowledge and skills. Resolving difficult tasks, managing stakeholder expectations through clear communication, and collaborating with a diverse group of people are daily challenges and opportunities that I cherish.
With the increased globalisation of the business environment, I also enjoy opportunities to work on cross-boundary renewable energy projects in my current role at Sarawak Energy. This has enabled me to be involved in global legal matters, developing a unique global perspective on the diverse areas of law that can impact a business.
In line with Sarawak Energy’s regional powerhouse and Battery of ASEAN aspirations, we are pursuing opportunities for power export and development in the region. These contribute towards the realisation of the broader ASEAN Power Grid and regional energy transition efforts.
Supporting these developments give me opportunities to acquire wider business knowledge and skills while increasing my job satisfaction and providing me with a sense of purpose.
Does technology have an impact on your current in-house practice? If so, how?
Yes, it definitely has an impact. Sarawak Energy has embarked on a continuous improvement drive across the whole organisation and aims to become a digital utility by 2025. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the company’s digitalisation journey, driving the adoption of online collaboration tools which enabled a new way of working, allowing the workforce to work anywhere, anytime. This practice has continued to the present.
Technologies like virtual conferencing platforms and cloud storage systems have facilitated easier cross-departmental collaboration. Visibility of, and access to documents have been enhanced. We can work on documents at the same time, and make real-time changes. Management and board presentations have also been carried out online, allowing for swift decision-making.
My recent involvement in a cross-border joint venture transaction exemplified the significant impact that technology has on my work. The entire due diligence process for the transaction was carried out and concluded remotely over a three-month period. This was possible because of cloud technology. Before the implementation of such technology, due diligence of highly confidential documents had to be carried out physically, requiring relevant parties to travel and carry out the inspection at an agreed time at the same venue.
With cloud technology, we were able to set up a virtual data room containing all the relevant information and share the documents securely by controlling the amount of access given to the other party. Microsoft Teams has made it much easier for us to discuss or clarify issues with the other party, resulting in significant time and cost savings.
However, remote collaboration has its downsides – you can’t read someone’s body language over a call. Closing a business deal requires the parties involved to spend some time together in-person to build a trusting and lasting relationship. To achieve a good balance moving forward, there should be a mixture of virtual calls and physical meetings – with the latter reserved for more intense and strategic negotiations.
Apart from virtual collaboration tools, Sarawak Energy has also launched an e-procurement solution system – Sarawak Energy e-Procurement (SEPRO). This software provides Legal, Land & Company Secretary as well as the other relevant departments with better visibility, transparency, and control over spending for procurement activities. We also adopted Electronic Signature (eSignature) software during the pandemic which allows secure signing anytime, anywhere.
With all these technological tools in place, we have greater flexibility and control over the way we work in Sarawak Energy. There is potential for technology to play an even more prominent role in the Legal, Land & Company Secretary team. We can look into automating and streamlining repetitive or manual tasks, so we can focus more on strategic legal work that adds greater business value to the company and allows us to become a better business partner.