Report On Session1 Of Women In Law Dialogue Series 2016 – Challenges & Opportunities – with comments and analysis by Ms. Nida Mahmood – Founding Director of Lahore Education and Research Network (LEARN).
The Lahore Education and Research Network (LEARN) recently conducted the first session of the Women In Law Dialogue Series earlier this month in association with CourtingTheLaw.com. Session 1 aimed to look into and address some of the common challenges and shared concerns that most female law graduates may have upon entering the profession due to lack of opportunities for young female lawyers and students to find meaningful assistance for navigating their way into the profession.
However, the series is the first of its kind of an initiative that not only focuses on understanding the challenges and opportunities for women in the legal profession but also hopes to initiate a dialogue on creating an enabling environment for greater integration of female law graduates in the profession and ultimately their role at the bench, the bar, the bar councils and associations, law firms, and the profession in general.
The underlying objective being that while there existed an overall appreciation and recognition of the conscious or unconscious bias against women in the fraternity in general, there however, was no talk or mention ever of deliberating upon solutions to make things easy – if not right; and given the lack of networking opportunities that women face particularly in relation to networking with their male counterparts, it seemed only right that a forum or platform could be provided to such aspiring female lawyers who get a chance to interact and benefit from the experiences of inspiring women in law who have already made a mark for themselves amidst the common challenges and shared concerns that we can all relate to.
With this objective in mind, the first session in the Women In Law Dialogue Series comprised of the most diverse and resilient young female lawyers in the profession today including, Ms. Nida Aftab who is currently working at Ashter Ali and Co. in the civil litigation department; Ms. Azmeh Khan, who is heading the legal department at Highnoon Laboratories; Ms. Marium Khalid who is a senior counsel working at ABS and Co. and has been involved in international arbitrations including that of Rekodiq, and Ms. Anooshay Shaigan who is the Editor and the Vice President of CourtingTheLaw.com – Pakistan’s first legal awareness and analysis portal. The panel was jointly moderated by Ms. Nida Mahmood Founder of LEARN and Ms. Maira Sheikh who is the senior research fellow at Research Society of International Law, Pakistan.
The panelists were asked a set of common questions that encouraged them each to share their own unique and individual journey into the profession while highlighting any of their peculiar challenges along the way. They were also asked to identify the personal traits and tricks of trade that secured them the opportunities that they had. The panelists answered each question with an eccentric grace and a touch of humor and brought forward the issue of women participation and representation in the profession in a very personal yet professional manner.
For most of the panelists, law was not their first choice and this is very important because this apparently is the first challenge at a personal level that one may have to come to terms with. Nonetheless, with support and/or inspiration from their families they were guided to consider law as a subject and ultimately went on to make their mark in this field. When asked if they faced any discouragement from choosing this line of career, Ms. Nida Aftab rightly pointed out that while there is little or no discouragement at the time of pursuing the law degree, the discouragement does come afterwards when it is time to actually put the degree to use and practice. This perhaps is the most hypocritical notion behind an aspiring female lawyer’s career ambition as it has the tendency to alter the approach with which a female student sees her law degree. We believe that a paradigm shift may be necessary here in the mindset of our families so that they start seeing our law degree as more than just a qualification that we need for the world to see; that it is indeed our tool to participate as able members of the Pakistani workforce and not just a tag as an evaluation of our academic worth.
Law is and remains a male dominated profession and while that is true, it is also true that most of the times the nature of the work and more importantly, the nature of the clients can be an impediment to the progress for women in the field. This is not so much the fault of our profession as it is of the society in general where men don’t feel as comfortable in talking to females about their issues and matters. The panelists therefore, identified that one of the challenges that a female lawyer may encounter comes at the stage where interaction with a client has to take place for they are usually not comfortable in addressing women in such matters. A client, they said would not make eye contact or may even completely ignore the very existence of the female advocate during any consultation, meetings or negotiations. This then becomes a real challenge that women and their employers will have to deal with and so it acts as an impediment. Equally challenging it is to head a legal department where work has to be coordinated with majority of men over the age of 40 as they perceive you as a young women to be very much still a child and not so much as a professional as explained by Ms. Azmeh Khan who has over the years now mastered the art of delegation as head of legal department at Highnoon Laboratories.
What is important however is to have the right attitude and demeanor at the job which requires you to be a thorough professional like any other professional in the office irrespective of gender. The idea that the panelists rightly put forward was to keep a firm and confident persona coupled with the right sense of professional dressing and demeanor to be presentable to show that you deserve to be where you are. A lot therefore depends on how you carry yourself and what you are willing to invest in your job including, the time, effort, energy and grace. Off course you may question as to why should women have to prove their worth but, I say, don’t we all in order to progress?
The bias within law firms related to hiring women especially because of their personal life plans including marriage or children is very genuinely a serious concern for both women as well as for employers however, it is sad that such a status quo exists where personal life or professional life devolves down to a matter of choice in a way that one out-does the other. As Ms. Marium Khalid rightly pointed out, this should never be a choice that has to be made save for free will. No women should be made to choose family over work or work over family. Indeed, women need to look after their families and in particular lack of access to childcare facilities is one of the main reasons for the high turnover of female lawyers from the profession despite the fact that higher number of women are entering to study law and are even doing academically much better than their male counterparts. This is where a combined and collaborative effort is much needed at the societal as well as at the fraternity level so that a collective solution can be designed to accommodate this natural role of women without having to deprive or bar them of their opportunity and right to work.
I understand that since men have traditionally been at the forefront of the legal profession it is not surprising that the traits that are attached to women are not so greatly valued or accommodated for the rules of the game were set when only men were the players. Now with female entrants rising and joining the game we should all understand that some reforms and changes will have to be brought in to accommodate the growing legal fraternity. Cue may be taken from other jurisdictions of the world where similar problems have been addressed in a more plausible and accommodating fashion thereby benefitting from the increase in the pool of able workforce by allowing and making it practically possible for more women to participate. Australia for instance is a leading example in point where firms have introduced unconventional methods for retention and growth of female talent. These include but are not limited to, flexible work arrangements (not the same as part-time workers which denotes a lesser degree of commitment), reduced hours, job-sharing arrangements and most interestingly, the notion of a ‘sponsor’ who is generally a person in position of influence who is actively engaged and responsible for your career progression.
Considering that the course of gender equality has never run smooth so you need egalitarian leadership within the bar councils and associations as well as the law schools, alumni programmes and other organizations to create access to the same networking and business opportunities, as well as mentoring and teamwork programmes, exchange of ideas and dialogue to influence legal culture and pragmatic plans to facilitate the growth and retention of female talent to address the gender-gap problem.
That said, however, the panelists highlighted some of the obvious little benefits of working in a male dominated profession in terms of lesser competition and chances of standing out given the low expectations from the work that female counterparts produce. In addition to that, some judges and senior lawyers are quite receptive and encouraging of young female lawyers who wish to practice. The panelists offered their closing remarks with the same eloquence as they had maintained in all their responses and advised the audience to firstly pursue what they love and are passionate about and secondly to choose their workplace wisely after careful thought and deliberation as to the nature of the work they do and the kind of environment they have. They stressed on the importance of being on decent terms with staff, seniors and fellow colleagues so as to be able to steer away from any office politics and lobbying that can hinder or damage not just the impression but also your work ethic and your productivity. They also advised the participants to keep an open mind to their options as well as to any criticism for that is for their progress and for their learning. They highlighted the importance of reaching out and of thinking and planning actively. They suggested that restricting themselves or being discouraged by what other people may have to say is never a good idea and that they should allow themselves the opportunities to experience the vastness of the legal arena especially in the initial years of career. Ms. Anooshay Shaigan was quick to add the word ‘innovation’ to the experience debate and encouraged the participants to come up with novel solutions as contribution to the legal industry as she had managed along with her team and her mentors in shape of CourtingTheLaw.com.
The second session of the Women In Law Dialogue Series will focus on ‘Women and Litigation’ and will take place in March 2016. Further details of the second session will be updated soon.
 1st February, 2016, at Books and Beans, Lahore.
 We are grateful for the support rendered by team of Courting the Law, Books and Beans and by our volunteers Ms. Fizza Irshad and Mr. Moghees uddin Khan without whom this event would not have been possible.
 As per the observation and experience of Ms. Nida Aftab during one of her meetings with the client.
 For more interest in the subject see ‘Feminism and Critical Race Theory’, Frances Olsen (1990) and Ngaine Naffine in ‘Law and Sexes’.
 See for instance the case of Ms. Rebecca Gilsenan who works as a principal in class actions on flexible work arrangement basis at Maurice Blackburn – a leading Australian Compensation and Social Justice firm.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of CourtingTheLaw.com or any organization with which she might be associated.