Women’s Task Team uplifting female legal practitioners in the profession

August 1st, 2018

By Kgomotso Ramotsho

The Law Society of South Africa’s (LSSA’s) Women’s Task Team was interviewed by lawyer and law firm strategist, Pamela DeNeuve, in June for her blog ‘Lawyer of the week’. Attorney and Chairperson of the LSSA’s Women’s Task Team and Vice Chairperson of the Attorneys Development Fund (ADF), Mimie Memka; Founder and Director of Calibrics Innovative Legal Strategies, Jeanne-Mari Retief; Legal Aid South Africa Attorney, National Association of Democratic Lawyers (NADEL) General Secretary and LSSA Council member, Nolitha Jali; Director at Mafelo Attorneys, Reshotketsoe Mafelo; LSSA Council member, Black Lawyers Association’s (BLA) Head of Events and campaign and Director at Mabaeng Lenyai Attorneys, Mabaeng Denise Lenyai; and State Attorney and President of the South African Women in Law (SAWLA), Nolukhanyiso Gcilitshana were guests on the blog where the LSSA’s Women’s Task Team discussed its mission on transforming the legal profession for women in the profession.

Pamela DeNeuve (PD): How and when was the LSSA’s Women Task Team formed?

Ms Memka: The LSSA Women’s Task Team was established late in 2016, after a conversation that was held at the LSSA’s annual general meeting on the challenges that female legal practitioners face in the legal profession. The legal profession in South Africa (SA) is predominantly male dominated and gender transformation is moving at a snail’s pace. As women we took it on ourselves to try and change the landscape and deal with transformation and not leave it up to other people.

PD: Describe the obstacles that women need to overcome to practice law in SA.

Ms Lenyai: The challenges female legal practitioners face are vast. For some female legal practitioners – after completing their degree, – it is to enter the legal profession and find articles. There are perceptions that female legal practitioners are weak and sensitive. You do not get taken very seriously, especially when issues of promotion come, which also includes issues of remuneration for the fact that sometimes you are out of practice because you have to go and tend to your children.

When serious matters or cases are handed out, female legal practitioners are overlooked because of the perception that they are only needed for ‘soft types of duties in the office’, as female legal practitioners are not seen to be strong enough to handle serious court cases. There are also issues of sexual harassment, and some female legal practitioners have left the profession because of the challenges of sexual harassment. It is not easy to speak about sexual harassment and female legal practitioners opt to rather leave the profession than speak about it.

Based on a scale, black female legal practitioners are at the bottom of the list, with top of the list being white male legal practitioners, followed by black male legal practitioners and then white female legal practitioners. Black female legal practitioners have to battle through many levels before they are taken seriously. The fact that black female legal practitioners are accomplished attorneys have become the last thing that people consider. In order for black female legal practitioners to be taken seriously, they need to work twice as hard as their male counterparts. It is not fair that female legal practitioners have to ‘break their backs’ before they can be taken seriously.

PD: What is the mission of the LSSA Women’s Task Team?

Ms Mafelo: The mission is to see that transformation and female legal practitioners are uplifted in all key areas. The task team wants to see female legal practitioners uplifted to key positions, which is necessary to make sure they progress. The LSSA Women’s Task Team would know that it had accomplished its mission, when female legal practitioners get recognition and are given the opportunities they deserve, because they work harder than their male counterparts.

Statistics revealed that there were more female law graduates than male. However, female legal practitioners who got into the system and remained in the profession are much fewer than male legal graduates from university. There are different levels that one goes through after university. You have to become a candidate attorney and be admitted as an attorney. But after you have been through all this, that is where you recognise that a lot less women have become attorneys.

PD: How different is the LSSA Women’s Task Team from other committees?

Ms Retief: The LSSA Women’s Task Team is different from other committees and teams that are championing women’s gender advancement. The LSSA Women’s Task Team did not want to be another committee that came together to discuss challenges and then go their separate ways. We wanted something practical to come out of the LSSA Women’s Task Team. We wanted to be able to get together and identify achievable objectives and then at the end of the year, sit down and discuss what we had achieved and to what degree and whether they had succeeded.

PD: How do you support each other?

Ms Retief: We support each other’s goals and objectives even though members of the LSSA Women’s Task Team serve on other committees and in other fields of law, members still try to get together to put objectives together to reach a common goal.

Ms Jali: Members knew their schedules when we started and also knew the commitment and wanted to make a difference. In order for the LSSA Women’s Task Team to achieve what we wanted, we had to take it one step at a time and focus on one programme at a time and to see it to fruition, then take on the next programme.

Ms Memka: The LSSA Women’s Task Team are not talking about ‘pie in the sky’ ideas. Members have started a mentorship programme where we have sought the services of mature female legal practitioners to mentor the younger practitioners who have entered the legal profession in terms of content of the law, but also in terms of running their own practices. Most of us are practitioners running our own firms, be it a small or medium sized, so we want to ensure that the younger generation of female practitioners coming into the legal profession have a support system and that they are not left by themselves and feel isolated, as we did when we entered the profession.

Ms Gcilitshana: It was important to have something tangible that contributed to the development and upliftment of women. We needed to identify the issues affecting women and see what can be done to assist. The LSSA Women’s Task Team need other parties to be involved in addressing such issues, for example, the relationship the task team have established with Ms DeNeuve. The LSSA Women’s Task Team were given a platform to speak about issues affecting female legal practitioners in SA. Perhaps you can assist us to do what we would like to do in the legal profession for women in South Africa.

Ms Lenyai: The LSSA’s Women’s Task Team is in collaboration with the ADF. There was a challenge for attorneys who wanted to start their own law firms, because they had to go for a Practice Management Training course first. However, the course was costly and most legal practitioners came from disadvantaged backgrounds and could not afford Practice Management Training. Through Ms Retief, the LSSA Women’s Task Team and the ADF, had a memorandum of understanding that the ADF would pay for female legal practitioners to attend Practice Management Training.

The arrangement with the ADF was to offer an interest free loan. The ADF pays for the course and later when the female legal practitioners are working, they pay the interest free loan back to the ADF over a period of a year.

PD: What legacy does the LSSA’s Women’s Task Team want to leave behind?

Ms Gcilitshana: It would be the transformation of the thinking in the legal profession, generally a transformation of the thinking among legal practitioners. A society of a profession that is able to think broadly, especially on issues of gender equality.

Ms Memka: The LSSA Women’s Task Team wants to open a way for the younger generation and for that generation to find it easier to get access into the legal profession. The LSSA Women’s Task Team wants the younger generation to be encouraged to remain within the profession because the environment, which they would have entered the profession in at that particular point would have changed. The younger generation would not face the same challenges the older generation did.

Our children must find it a level playing field for everyone irrespective of their gender, irrespective of their colour and that colour should not determine whether you succeed as a lawyer or not.

The full interview can be found at www.pameladeneuve.com

Kgomotso Ramotsho Cert Journ (Boston) Cert Photography (Vega) is the news reporter at De Rebus.

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2018 (Aug) DR 13.