From Kabul to Harvard Law and Back
The Story of Saeeq Shajjan’s Charisma, Pride, and Ethics in Business
By BusinessDNA Editorial Team
Saeeq Shajjan a Harvard Law graduate, attorney, and businessman of pragmatic charisma — stands proud in his corporate corner office in the middle of downtown Kabul, the city at the heart of Afghanistan’s 20-year journey of revival and hope. The meaning behind Saeeq is nothing less than of the highest stature and depth: it translates to “the master of lightning and thunder,” also meaning “the one who brings fear to those who act unjustly.” Saeeq says there’s a joke in the family that his father dug deep into the “hidden pages” of the Quran to find the perfect name for
him. For Saeeq, rule of law was always at the forefront of his mind from an early age, inspired by the duty to serve those other than himself. “I believe my father wanted me to act like a force of lightning against those who were hurting his country.” Saeeq has lived up to that expectation to this day.
If the name “Shajjan” seems familiar, you may be thinking of Shajjan & Associates – one of Afghanistan’s first few Afghan-owned law firms – which was ranked “Band 1” in the 2020 Asia-Pacific Guide by Chambers and Partners – an internationally-known and one of the most reputable legal directories in the world, covering over 200 jurisdictions. “Receiving this title gave us a great deal of pride, not only for the significance of the achievement itself, but also for what it shows in terms of our clients’ satisfaction from our work. A part of their rigorous process is speaking with clients about their experiences. As a matter of principle, the happiness of our clients from our service is immensely important to us.”
Born in the eastern Laghman province in 1979 – the year the Soviets invaded Afghanistan – Saeeq spent his childhood in Peshawar, Pakistan, after his family fled Afghanistan Civil War, a journey he shares with millions of other Afghans.
He would spend most of his childhood in Peshawar, balancing youth and early adulthood between pursuing a quality education and providing for his family. He would sell fruits and vegetables during the day and study in the evening. The success he enjoys at Shajjan & Associates today, in part, stems from his early-age sales practice on the streets of refuge in Pakistan.
When asked, “Why study law?” his response echoed the passion of a faithful servant to the people. He noted the different regimes of the last 40 years, a history filled with players bound in the “great game” of Afghanistan. “No one cares about the needs of the people. They are focused on their own gains – something that would cost the public their lives, homes, freedom, and rights. So, when you’re living in a country like this, you need to think about how you can protect the rights of the citizens.” With limited awareness of their rights – let alone having their rights respected – Afghans live in a country with one of the weakest and most corrupt justice systems in the world.
Saeeq’s story is incredibly relatable to thousands of Afghans, and that is perhaps what makes him so likable, respected, and revered. After high school, he attended the Peshawar-based Pohantoone Afghan – a private university established by “Afghan refugees for Afghan refugees.” “The aim was to make sure refugee Afghan children had the opportunity to receive an education.”
Saeeq lived a difficult yet rewarding and honorable life throughout his journey to adulthood. His father, albeit well-known and highly influential, was not attributed to any large sums of money and led a humble life for his family. “If you’re not corrupt, it’s not easy for you to make sure your children have everything they need,” Saeeq noted one specific ritual in his childhood: the recycling of one pair of clothes, Peran Tunban, from one Eid holiday to the next – a year-long ration on keeping clothes wearable before the next opportunity to make a new pair. Money was tight, and there was always a lesson to be learned in being grateful for what was in front of Saeeq and his siblings.
Saeeq is a true believer in the power of quality education and continued learning – whether in Afghanistan or abroad – but he is critical of the higher education system in Afghanistan. When asked about his experience of studying law at Kabul University after his family’s return to Afghanistan in 2000, he shuffles the pen in his hand, looking crestfallen. “It’s disappointing that the law schools in Afghanistan don’t groom you to become a competent lawyer in the society, but rather the expectation is to merely memorize and reproduce the lectures of the professors to pass their exams.” He had no clear vision for a career in law until he began studying for an LLM. program at Pune University in India – an opportunity he had to fight tooth and nail from getting a two-hour leave from office to bypassing the Ministry of Higher Education to reach the Indian Embassy and get a slot at the scholarship exam, which he nailed at 97%. He gave it everything he could until he was accepted.
His new chapter would come at a personal cost. He would leave only a few months after getting married and would miss the birth of his first child. “It was a difficult time, and not the last time I would experience missing out on important moments in my family.” Yet, in making his school his home, he notes one professor, Dilip Ukey, who especially sparked his passion for applying his legal education to serve society. “Honestly, if there was a ticket to attend his lectures, I would happily buy it each and every time.” Saeeq noted the stark difference in teaching methods between the institutions he attended. “At Kabul University, you may have studied about 40 pages a semester. In India, I was reading 40 pages a week. Later on at Harvard Law, we were expected to prepare for the lectures by reading 80-100 pages a day. I think that explains where we stand in Afghanistan compared to the rest of the world.”
Tough, resilient, upfront, and proud, Saeeq is also very humble and kind. He barely mentions Harvard Law without us prodding a few questions at any convenient point in the conversation. He is aware of the significance of education at Harvard Law School and its impact on anyone’s career. From the President of the United States, Barack Obama, to Founder & CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, the institution comes with its notable names and global influence. When asked about his experience in the United States, he says: “being admitted to and studying at Harvard Law is a dream come true for anybody, especially for me coming from Afghanistan where I had no idea of the academic rigor and intellectual commitment required of students at the university. Every student’s talents and accomplishments inspired me and set a high bar for me as a graduate later on.” As a profoundly self-aware and honest person, he carries himself as a competent, dedicated, and ethical attorney with years of experience. He admits “seeing the LL.M. Harvard” on his business card makes an excellent first impression, but “at the end of the day, it’s up to me to prove my worth as I deal with clients and provide them only the best of services we can provide at Shajjan & Associates.”
We asked about those very people who inspired him at Harvard Law – a beaming photo of Saeeq accompanied by two friends left us with some questions. “Both Rebecca Gang and Andru Wall – my class fellows at Harvard Law – are very close friends of mine, but also great friends of Afghanistan.” Andru Wall – having served in Afghanistan on multiple occasions and in various roles – shared a similar sentiment about Saeeq.
“He’s everything one can hope for in an attorney and friend — thoughtful, intellectually curious, diligent, and passionately committed to justice and bettering the lives of those around him. It’s been my honor and privilege to call Saeeq, a friend for over ten years. Over the past couple of years, I finally had the opportunity to work with him professionally, and my respect and admiration grew even more. Saeeq never stops working for his clients, and his thoughtful advice is flawless. Of the many lawyers in Afghanistan I’ve been fortunate to know and work with, Saeeq is truly without peer — he’s in a class of his own.” Andru Wall, Saeeq’s LL.M. class fellow.
Did it ever cross Saeeq’s mind to stay in the U.S. after graduation from Harvard Law and make a living there? He says, “absolutely not! Of course, I had friends and family in the U.S. who said, ‘Do you have any idea what kind of life you can have with this degree here, Saeeq?’ I knew the value of my education from a prestigious university, but I would tell them that my Harvard degree belonged to Afghanistan and its people. The scholarship wasn’t given to Saeeq, but to an Afghan scholar to study abroad and return to serve the people.”
Over the recent years, many scholarship programs in Afghanistan have closed because a larger number of their students never returned after their studies completed abroad. Fulbright and Chevening scholarships have become more rigorous and suffer from their scholars not returning home from the U.S. and the UK. “If I stayed in the United States, I would be no different than others who have been disloyal to the home country. In the U.S., I would not be much impactful either. In Afghanistan, however, the value and the ability to give back are infinite.”
Saeeq admits that when he returned to Kabul in 2010, he expected a fancy government position with a high salary waiting to leap into his arms. “I wasn’t even being shortlisted,” he laughs. “Despite a Harvard degree, you had to have good connections or engage in corrupt practices to get a good job. It wasn’t about competence.” After two and a half months of trying, he was eventually recruited as the Senior Advisor on Policies & Legislation at the Civil Service Commission. After a while, Saeeq was hounded internally by the thought that he was meant to build a path for himself again, not walk down one. “I knew that a government career – with immense pressure to be part of or witness corrupt practices – was not where I should be. I was done. I chose to go my own way.”
Like the days at Harvard where he felt like he was a traveling businessman – attending conferences and representing Afghanistan in panel discussions – Saeeq would eventually see that sliver of the future come to fruition.
In 2011, with 2,500 US dollars in tow, he rented out a small office in Gulbahar Center, bought a couple of computers, and hired two staff members. Shajjan & Associates would be known as perhaps Afghanistan’s first Afghan-owned law firm in the corporate law sphere. But the challenges were instant. “I was competing against many international firms, which were making
millions of dollars from the legal sector in Afghanistan. Clients would rather hire an experienced American or European firm for they were in the Afghan market for so long, and I was new. It took a couple of years of dedicated, persistent work – and winning some influential clients – to prove myself and build a trustworthy name for Shajjan & Associates.”
Competent law firms such as Shajjan & Associates play a critical role for businesses in Afghanistan, where bureaucratic loopholes and corruption are rampant throughout the government. The need for legal security is a must – and finding a reputable law firm is the first step for investors in making the journey to doing business in Afghanistan.
Saeeq cites he chose to specialize in commercial law so he could support private investment in the country – a prerequisite for economic stability whose impact runs through society. He says, “I would link almost 90% of Afghanistan’s problems, i.e. insurgency, violence, immigration, etc. to the extreme unemployment and lack of economic opportunities for Afghans. If I can support private investment – thus job creation in the country – I am helping the entire country fight its fundamental problems.”
To date, Shajjan & Associates has worked with over 24 law firms across the world, including the
world’s biggest names, such as Baker McKenzie and Jones Day, to name a couple. Shajjan & Associates has worked with over 100 corporate clients based in the U.K., U.S., U.A.E, and Afghanistan. With constantly growing revenue since 2011, the firm serves international organizations operating in Afghanistan by providing legal counseling, litigation, legislative drafting, and legal capacity building services.
Saeeq sees the continued success of Shajjan & Associates – whether in terms of its financial performance or positive reputation among its clients – in his decision to invest on his team of more than 15 lawyers and tax consultants with three to seven years of experience at his firm.
Halimullah Kousary, the firm’s Executive Director, believes Saeeq has distinct skills that have led him to become an unmatched leader in Afghanistan’s legal sector. Halimullah says, “Saeeq encourages staff to think out of the box. He appreciates critical thinking even if it is against what he believes. Sometimes we agree to disagree, and he seeks that quality in his team. He’s also too generous. I told him to change it. He never will.”
Saeeq is passionate about supporting the learning and development of lawyers and attorneys in the legal sector, whether at his own office or in the community. He keeps an open door for members of his team to pursue their graduate studies abroad and come back to work at Shajjan & Associates. “God has gifted me the ability to spot good talent. I’ve been incredibly happy with every recruitment I’ve made.” Shajjan & Associates has one of the lowest staff turnover in the legal sector for Saeeq has invested his time and resources in building the capacity of his team and encouraging their continuous learning and development. “When they wish to study abroad, I keep their employment active, so they return and take on even more responsibilities at Shajjan & Associates. We currently have three of our team members studying in the U.S. and the U.K. When they return – a rational expectation given the immense growth opportunities for them career-wise – our team will be unmatched in Afghanistan. That is something that I’ll be incredibly proud of.”
Shahrzad Shamim, currently Senior Associate at Shajjan & Associates, was able to pursue her graduate degree in the United States while continuing her employment at Shajjan & Associates – the kind of support she believes is rare in Afghanistan. When asked about her opinion of Saeeq, she says: “[Saeeq’s] leadership encourages us to take ownership of our work while ensuring he is there to support us if we ever need it. Shajjan is known for his statement that ‘yes, today you are my employee, but tomorrow you could become a junior or senior partner at the firm. It depends on you and how you show that you can take on more responsibilities.’ That is truly a great feeling to have from a company’s leadership.”
Saeeq’s pragmatic charisma and tough stance in legal issues in Afghanistan in part stem from his commitment to the improvement of the legal environment in the country. He is the chairman of the Arbitration and Alternative Dispute Resolution at the International Chamber of Commerce – Afghanistan, where he tries to establish the arbitration and ADR culture in Afghanistan and have his say vis-à-vis lawsin-the-making to ensure they are comprehensively developed and result in an improved business environment. He works with the ACCI-based Afghanistan Center for Dispute Resolution (ACDR) – an alternative dispute resolution mechanism too. “Investments depend on the effectiveness of arbitration and dispute resolution mechanisms in the country. Over 50% of commercial cases are resolved through arbitration around the world, so it’s paramount for the legal sector’s development to build and sustain ACDR.”
Saeeq’s humble beginnings and persistent hard work have only brought him closer to people in need. He proudly cites Shajjan & Associates’ pro bono work with clients who need their help the most. Asma (pseudonym, to protect the client’s identity), a client of Shajjan & Associates, reaffirmed the dedication of Saeeq and his team when she spoke with us about the impact their support had on her life: “Words cannot explain how grateful I am to Saeeq Shajjan. When we met, I was heart-broken. I feared for the life of my only child and myself. My husband had consistently been violent to the point of causing a miscarriage. During a visit to Kabul, my husband’s family separated me from my baby and kept me a prisoner. My family helped me escape. The British Embassy gave me Saeeq’s address and encouraged me to get legal help. He did not charge me any fees because I didn’t have any money. He understood my situation. Thanks to his tireless work, he managed to get us to the U.K. and provide us the legal help we needed. We are now safe, happy, and have a bright future away from the threat to our lives.”
When asked about what he had relied on to go from a start-up in 2011 to one of the best law firms in the country today, he says dedication, patience, and hard work are the key. “Opening an office and getting a business license isn’t enough.” In between laughs, Saeeq recalls a couple of instances he had to go above and beyond for his clients. “I had completely broken my right leg once and couldn’t move. But I drove to the office, using only my left leg, at 4 in the morning to make a Skype call with a court in the U.S. to represent a client. Another time, a day after a surgery – while I was advised to only rest- I went to attend an important meeting. If your client needs you, you have to make yourself available. Period.
Saeeq has a reputation for his strong moral stance against corruption and malpractice. “The justice sector is not as corrupt as it’s perceived. It’s the attorneys themselves who serve as middlemen between clients and judges. No one can ask you to engage in corrupt practices if you stand strong in your stance against corruption.” He cites the story of an attorney who asks Saeeq, “if you walk with me, I can solve your case.” As tough and intimidating as Saeeq comes across, he told the attorney, “I am fasting today, and it’s for I believe in moral values that you won’t understand. The law will solve my case. I don’t need your help.” While many ordinary Afghans may not be able to afford to take a similar stance, Saeeq believes giving in is not the
way to go. “You give in once; you build a reputation for yourself. Then you should expect bribes as your usual way of solving cases.”
Beyond the dedication of his team – and his grit – Saeeq attributes the continued growth of Shajjan & Associates to the growth in the wider legal sector of Afghanistan.
In predicting the future of the legal sectors in Afghanistan, he says: “it depends on how the future of the country unfolds. If we have peace, I believe Afghanistan will be in a significantly better place. The legal sector will boom within a couple of years. The sector will need many more law firms like Shajjan & Associates to meet the demand for legal work. Even with the continuation of the current situation, there’s sufficient work for everyone. Legal service is the key to the private sector investment and development in the country.”
Our last few moments with Saeeq left us inspired and confident that we were only going to see more of Shajjan & Associates as the future unfolds. In sharing his aspirations for the country, he mentions one group in particular: the youth of Afghanistan. “I have faith in the abilities of our younger generation. They have immensely positive energy and courage to stand against corrupt practices – despite their limited political power and access. But they have access to legal information and education in an expanding world. They are the driving force for the kind of change that the Afghan people want to see after the 40 years of perpetual conflict. If our youth continue to learn and become more capable day by day, there is nothing that can stop them from breaking the status quo.”
We left the offices of Shajjan & Associates glancing at the plaque at the doorway, which gleamed across the looming Kabul sunset. “There’s a reason that I’ve named the business ‘Shajjan & Associates’ – it’s my own name, and I cannot play with my own name. For me, my name comes first.” Saeeq Shajjan has carried out the virtues his father has instilled in him and solidified through his name. He has set the bar high for himself through Shajjan & Associates, and he’s only getting started.
Building a Business in Afghanistan in Shajjan’s Way:
- Invest in legal representation early in the life of your business before you take missteps that cost you your business in the future. Respect the need for legal service, but do not spend thousands on legal advice unnecessarily.
- Persistent and dedicated hard work is the only way you can build your business to success. There’s no such thing as an overnight success.
- Treat every single client – large or small – with the utmost respect and give them the best service you can. Word-of-mouth is the more effective form of marketing – count on client referrals.
- To keep your clients happy is to keep your employees happy first.
- Commit to life-long learning and becoming competent in your field of business. The way to business success requires you to be the best version of yourself.
- Recognize, respect, and live by your moral values and red lines in the business, never compromising your principles for profit – a requisite for the long-term success of your business.
- Never break the law even when no one is watching.
- Value and invest in your team, so they see themselves in the future of your company.
- Your journey to success or failure in business will always be different from others. Own it. Learn from it. And share it.
- Identify and keep alive your inner driving force in life and business – i.e., helping people in need – you’ll rely on it every single day of your journey to building your business.