Sylvia Kithinji is the Head of Commercial and Corporate at Ashitiva Advocates in Kenya. She talks to Craig Sisterson about working with non-profit organisations, human rights, and how taking a broader view helps both lawyers and clients.
It was the combination of her experiences in international development, human rights and corporate commercial law fields that has prepared Sylvia Kithinji for the role she now holds at Ashitiva Advocates in Kenya.
Sylvia, who became a partner last year and is the head of Commercial and Corporate at the firm, is of the view that the more one is exposed to various scenarios, the more versatile they become in their career of choice. “I think the trick is not to be afraid of having vast and varied experience,” says Sylvia who returned to Ashitiva after several years working at the Kenyan Human Rights Commission and in-house at an international non-profit organisation.
She said while young lawyers should develop and hone strong technical skills in the areas they’re passionate about, they should also venture outside their comfort zone. Sylvia is also a firm believer in having a flavour of other experiences.
Sylvia has always taken a broad view. Having grown up in a small town in Kenya, Sylvia chose to study law because she was interested in international diplomacy.
As her early career turned strongly towards corporate commercial law, Sylvia maintained an interest in international law. “The opportunity to interact with human rights came up early on, and I was happy to take that on and find some blend. I came in at the right time because the world had started talking a lot more about business and human rights. It was a good fit.”
Looking back, Sylvia says she’s glad she went into law because it connects with so many areas of life. “Law is a good platform to launch many things you care about, and that’s what I love about it most. It gives you an opportunity to try and test so many things, and so many passions.”
She said working at the Kenyan Human Rights Commission and the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), which builds Africa-led solutions for transforming agriculture across the continent, has enhanced her commercial skills. This has been beneficial to her clients, now that has returned to private practice.
Ashitiva describes their Head of Commercial and Corporate as a “very special warrior” with a sharp intellect and deep social conscience, “the perfect combination for a modern lawyer”.
And Sylvia fits the portfolio.
She says one of the biggest takeaways from her time in human rights and international development was being able to grasp things at a macro level. She learned that corporate lawyers must be able to understand things beyond the law. To look beyond the legal scope of a specific issue or challenge, to a client’s broader business, sustainability, and opportunities.
“When you’re in-house and working on a very big vision and mission, you understand that I sit here as a lawyer supporting 12 countries across Africa, I should be giving solutions. Sometimes that solution isn’t a 17-page memo, it’s innovating one way or another to help your clients achieve whatever they want to achieve. That was one of my biggest learnings.”
Sylvia was a founding employee when Ashitiva was established in 2010, and continued to have conversations with founder Nelson Ashitiva throughout various career moves.
“It was “extremely natural” to return to Ashitiva”, says Kithinji, “to build the vision of a commercial and corporate department that supports organisations in the development space and those “driven by a certain mission to support African businesses, especially at home”.
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