Features

Jacqueline Keller – Maybank 

As Maybank’s head of legal, she’s a Jackie of all trades 

There’s nothing like immersion to assimilate a new hire. So Jacqueline Keller experienced in April 2014 after becoming head of legal for Maybank’s dealings in the Americas. Days later, she was on a plane to its international headquarters in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur, where the executive team warmly greeted Keller. 

Jacqueline Keller | Head of Legal | Maybank 

Jacqueline Keller | Head of Legal | Maybank

But she couldn’t help but recognize some cultural differences. Malaysians, like other Southeast Asians, are conservative and naturally relatively relaxed. Keller is also well-mannered, but as a New York lawyer well-versed in corporation litigation and high finance from her previous positions in private law, she couldn’t be too laid back. Both parties had and continue to have much to learn from each other. 

“Sometimes they look at me as an American,” she tells Vanguard in January. “The view overseas is that everything’s litigious in the United States and how legal costs are exorbitant compared to overseas. That can be the case, but I tell them how I feel without a filter advising legal risks. I’m comfortable and sleep well doing that.” 

She’s been doing that for nearly a decade and finding her perspectives welcome at Maybank’s London and Asian offices. While Maybank is Malaysia’s largest bank by market capitalization and one of the largest overall in Southeast Asia, its American presence has been fairly modest. Still, it is increasing with much legal and business guidance from Keller. 

A builder 

When she joined the team, Keller said the legal function and management of legal risks weren’t always at the top of peoples’ minds. Knowing her effectiveness would be limited if she stayed siloed, she reached out to other departments, digging deep into their responsibilities and emphasizing she was there to assist. 

Memories of the Great Recession’s effect on the banking industry are still fresh from 10 years ago, Keller took the lead on regulatory compliance, setting up its legal structure as well as processes and training programs. That’s still among her chief concerns, and with the need for cybersecurity becoming a shared responsibility, she’s partnered with her business colleagues and says the synergies have been beneficial. 

Jacqueline Keller | Head of Legal | Maybank 

 

“It’s not about just straight legal interpretation,” Keller says. “It’s also finding the solutions to get the business side where it wants to go. We’re mitigating risk while ensuring there is room for innovation to meet the needs of our customers better as we continue to scale.” 

Her resources often stretched thin, she’s identified a few firms for outsourced expertise. The New York-headquartered heavyweight of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson can be counted upon for much advice on the international front.  Katten Muchin Rosenman also has worldwide offices, so it is on her speed dial, too.   

As necessary as outside counsel is, she won’t sell short the importance of listening. It’s an essential skill when interacting with different legal systems and cultures. Asked what might be her superpower, Keller responds she can comprehend the view of others and how that enhances her value as a business-minded attorney.  

Whereas all major foreign banks have a U.S. presence, Maybank’s only contact here is New York, which makes it all the more incumbent on Keller’s skills to transcend legal. A generalist with a deep background in all matters of finance, she says the mixed bag of responsibilities is to her liking, and after honing her early skills with a couple of firms, in-house is where she’s most comfortable. 

Law over medicine 

Time was when Keller seemed inclined to a scientific or medical career. The daughter of a German-born father and Spanish-born mother, she and her older brother grew up in New Rochelle, New York. 

Both parents being professionals—the father an engineer and the mother an accountant—education was stressed, and Keller majored in biology at Manhattan College. While her interests turned toward Albany Law School, she says the scientific background has gone a long way toward analyzing the legal and financial complexities that are business as usual in her profession. She even found engaging the kind of material that others might find dry. 

“In my spare time, I enjoyed reading about finance and investing,” Keller says. “My favorite hobby became managing my portfolio.” 

Derivatives becoming a financial industry buzzword, Keller juggled her early work at the firms with courses on the complex financial instruments at New York University in 2007-08 and took an in-house position at Morgan Stanley. The market soon crashing, Keller returned to private practice. Finally, around a decade ago, a recruiter asked her if she knew someone who might fit the Maybank role, and she responded, “Yes, me.” 

As her milestone anniversary nears, Keller says it’s been a most interesting ride with much accomplished on her watch. Assembling a legal department from the ground up took some doing, and with the financial industry being among the most regulated, she tries to anticipate what’s next for compliance. She says it’s satisfying to be viewed as a business partner rather than an obstacle, and there’s so much to do to sustain Maybank’s growth strategy in the Americas, Europe and Asia-Pacific.         

Her personal life also satisfies, Keller enjoying life in and around the Big City. While she still enjoys managing her portfolio, travel has become her favorite hobby with regular trips overseas and to the tropics. She’s an accomplished pianist and a pretty fair tennis player, having returned to the game after a lengthy hiatus. 

But her recreational time might be at a premium, what with Maybank expanding its footprint and Keller depended upon for so many functions. She is a Jackie of all trades and seems to have mastered them, too. Versatility’s prized at this company, and she’s always willing to put on another hat while growing on the job. 

“It’s a mixed bag of everything,” she says. “Day to day, it could be a contract for IT, a real estate deal that goes through a syndicated loan or a derivatives contract for the capital markets team. But having been in private practice and in-house, this is where I can make the biggest difference.” 

View this feature in the Vanguard Winter III 2024 Edition here.

Published on: February 26, 2024

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