The Multidisciplinary Lawyer

Arittha Wikramanayake F91 shepherded Sri Lanka through economic and legal transition
A headshot of Arittha Wikramanayake in front of a bookshelf

As a fifth generation lawyer, Arittha Wikramanayake F91 always imagined he would pursue a career in law. He grew up in Sri Lanka at a time when the economy was closed to the rest of the world, and he thought he had a clear idea of what his future held. He completed his undergraduate education in Sri Lanka and subsequently moved to Brussels to earn a master’s degree in European Law. As the country prepared to open its economy to the world, however, he felt compelled to look at the law in a different way. 

“I realized that an education purely in law was insufficient to be able to deal with issues that I could foresee Sri Lanka would face through a period of economic liberalization,” said Wikramanayake. 

“For years, we were under the command economy. With a change of government, we suddenly decided that we would change the entire structure of the economy, which meant setting up stock exchanges, privatization, and liberalization of laws,” he added. “I realized that I needed a more multidisciplinary education to be able to deal with those issues.”

Looking to what he imagined Sri Lanka would need 10 years down the road, Wikramanayake thought he could find the skills training he would need through an interdisciplinary education at The Fletcher School. 

Leading Change with a Multidisciplinary Perspective

As a MALD student, Wikramanayake found that Fletcher provided him with two key advantages in supporting Sri Lanka through its economic and legal transition: an education in public policy and exposure to diverse points of view. 

“In law school, you find a group of students that is very similar to yourself,” he said. “But at Fletcher, it is completely different. I found all sorts of people, and for somebody like me, who came from a very closed society, to interact with people like that was just amazing.”

His comfort with other points of view was immediately beneficial upon his return to Sri Lanka.

“My ability to think in a multidisciplinary fashion made me realize that I was different from others who were educated back at home, and I had an advantage,” he said. “I could think differently.”

“When I walked into a room, I had the confidence to speak, knowing that I had this knowledge of other subjects. People listen when you speak with authority. And to be able to speak with authority, you need that educational foundation, which Fletcher gave me.”

Combined with this perspective and his education in public policy, Wikramanayake found new opportunities. He became the first Director General of Sri Lanka’s newly established Securities and Exchange Commission. In this role, he helped create the structure for capital markets in Sri Lanka. Under his leadership, the country developed the first completely automated stock exchange in Southeast Asia. The technology was later adopted by the London Stock Exchange. 

Throughout his career, Wikramanayake continued to act as a mover and shaker, pushing other stakeholders in business and government to think in new ways. He identified stagnancy in the way law had been practiced in Sri Lanka under the former English system. Thus, he sought to upend the practice of law in the country. 

“Without efficient and progressive lawyers in the country, you couldn't facilitate the process of economic liberalization,” he said. 

He founded a corporate law firm, which quickly became a key competitor to the established firms. He continued to be involved in public work and set up Transparency International Sri Lanka, a national chapter of a global organization established to fight corruption. 

Building a Career with Joy

Wikramanayake’s appetite for new challenges is insatiable. 

During the 2013 East Asian financial crisis, he served on a committee to restructure the country’s financial system and subsequently was involved in free trade negotiations with Singapore, China, India, and Thailand. He traveled all over Sri Lanka with his daughter, writing a book on the country’s butterflies. This led him to replicate the project with wildflowers and spiders. 

“My philosophy has always been to take on a new subject to keep my brain working,” he said. 

As he has progressed in his career, he has found new joys. Today, his favorite part of his job is when he can pay it forward, helping the next generation emerge as leaders who can contribute to the nation’s progress. 

“The greatest satisfaction I get is through mentoring people,” he said. “I work with a lot of young lawyers who don't have the same advantages that I did, coming from a legal family.”

“A lot of people ask me why I’m still working,” he added. “I work because I’ve never had a day in my life when I did not want to go to the office. I like to interact with these people, to coach them into being the best they can, to help them, to talk to them, and to bring the best out of them.”

Read more about Fletcher’s international legal studies field of study.