Female legal practitioners can have a successful career and build families

September 22nd, 2022

The Law Society of South Africa (LSSA) held a three-part series of webinars for Women’s Month in collaboration with the Black Lawyers Association (BLA), the National Association of Democratic Lawyers (NADEL), the independent attorneys and the South African Women Lawyers Association (SAWLA). The second webinar in the series was held on 18 August 2022 under the theme ‘Reviving and restoring female legal practitioners’. The topics discussed were –

  • balancing the imbalance in the legal profession;
  • creating a space for women to be change-makers;
  • breaking barriers of entry for women in the legal profession;
  • balancing life between family and work; and
  • family first or career first.

The first speaker, the provincial secretary of SAWLA in Limpopo, Lerato Letsoalo, said the discussion was a very important one to have. She started her presentation by stating that female legal practitioners make up 43% of the profession. She added that the first woman attorney to be admitted as an attorney was in 1926 and the first female advocate was only admitted in 1962.

Ms Letsoalo shared the story of her first appearance as an admitted legal practitioner. She said that she went up to a senior colleague to introduce herself and the colleague proceeded to ask: ‘Oh, the office sent you?’ She added that the colleague insisted she sit down, and she said those words stuck with her forever. Ms Letsoalo said that she was shocked and could not believe the tone that the senior colleague used and started doubting if she belonged there and felt she was not welcome. She pointed out that seven years later she felt that she needed to share her story and noted that young female legal practitioners entering the legal profession go through many challenges.

Ms Letsoalo discussed the matter of balancing life between family and work. She added that she put down rules to help her balance her life at home and at work, of which the first rule was not to take work home. She said that when one puts oneself in a position not to take the office home, they will then ensure that they have sufficient time in the office. She pointed out that one must make time in the office to finalise whatever they need to finalise.

Ms Letsoalo said that after leaving the office, when you arrive home you need to spend time with your family. She also encouraged attendees to take care of themselves by exercising, eating right and scheduling time for self-care such as having a spa day. She pointed out that one also needs to take care of their mental health, because you ‘cannot pour from an empty cup’. ‘If you start by taking care of yourself, you will definitely have enough to take care of everything else around you, which is the work and the family,’ Ms Letsoalo said.

Ms Letsoalo told attendees that they need to communicate with their various support structures. That if there are any changes in their career, they should communicate with their support structures. For example, she added if you are married, you should explain to your spouse what is happening and decide on a plan on how you will assist each other and make the necessary plans to accommodate new changes and achieve balance moving forward. She added that one should also ask for assistance from colleagues when one needs help with work.

Ms Letsoalo also spoke about the importance of being in associations, such as SAWLA, BLA and NADEL. She said that when one is a member of these organisations it becomes easier to find mentorship and this allows one to open oneself up to be assisted. She spoke about SAWLA’s, ‘Pull as you rise’ initiative.

‘Where we are giving these young and upcoming female practitioners an opportunity to start properly and not traumatise them the way we were traumatised. If I take it back to what was said to me that: “I’m going to teach you court the hard way”, on the very first day that I was appearing, that could have broken me. That could have pushed me out,’ Ms Letsoalo added. She pointed out that she could have simply decided not to practise. She concluded by saying that it is possible for women to wear more than one hat, juggling work, as well as being a wife and a mother.

BLA member and a member of the LSSA Women’s Task Team, Ncumisa Sotenjwa, pointed out that the topic of the day was an important discussion and a conversation that female legal practitioners ought to have. She said that it will assist to rubber stamp and to make the voices of female legal practitioners even louder within the profession. She added that what Ms Letsoalo said was correct, namely that females can become demoralised by comments made by colleagues, and in particular if they come from the opposite gender. She said that females should start becoming brave, they should stand up for themselves and address such issues, attitudes, and behaviour.

President of the LSSA, Mabaeng Denise Lenyai, also shared a personal story. She said during the earlier years in her legal career, at one of the meetings she attended, other attendees said they wanted tea. She said that one of the attendees said Ms Lenyai should make tea and referred to her as a ‘little messenger’ in Afrikaans. Ms Lenyai pointed out that not only was she a young black female legal practitioner at the time, but she was also disadvantaged by language. She said that she had to be brave and stand up for herself, and told the person that she would make tea, after that person made it first.

Ms Lenyai encouraged attendees of the webinar to stand their ground and defend themselves. However, she said that while one defends oneself, they also need to bring their A-game to the table, be fully prepared all the time. To never get into any meeting, conversation, or discussion without having been fully prepared. ‘Because if you are not, then the stereotypes that people have about us will continue,’ said Ms Lenyai.

An attendee practising in Durban spoke about female legal practitioners who give other females opportunities. She said that the director of a law firm she works for prefers to hire female legal practitioners and put them in positions where they will get opportunities.

She said that she thought that it was a beautiful thing that she embarked on to give the ladies coming up after her, opportunities that maybe she did not have at the time. Regarding issues of balancing home and career, the attendee asked: ‘Why not both? Why not everything? I’ve heard so many times that one suffers and the other wins and it’s almost always the career stuff where our male counterparts can do it all. They can have the family and the career. So, I’m asking why not both? I want both. I want my family to be as good as my carrier is as good. So, I am going for both.’

Pietermaritzburg legal practitioner and member of NADEL, Sushi Keshav, pointed out that she has been a legal practitioner since 1991. She shared how she juggled work and the home front. She said that she has a husband and two daughters. She recounted when her children were younger, she would leave for the office after the children went to school at 7.30am. During her lunch break she would fetch the children at school, drop them at home and make food for them and then go back to the office until 4.30pm. Later she would go home and prepare and have supper with her family. She would wait for her children to go to bed and take out her files and work until 11pm at night. She pointed out that she was sharing this, to make attendees understand that time management is very important and if balanced right, one would be fine. She said that one must not shy away from hard work. She added that one needs to communicate and put it out there to their support structure that law is very demanding.

The webinar programme director and member of NADEL and the LSSA Women’s Task Team, Nolitha Jali, said that the ‘tea girl’ syndrome is not just done by men. She added that women do it to other women, because it was done to them and now, they are also doing it subconsciously. She said that when walking in those boardrooms seniors should be conscious that they do not use the ‘tea girl’ syndrome that was taught to them on their juniors. She pointed out that it was what they were taught, and they need to unlearn that syndrome. Ms Jali said that as female legal practitioners, especially the seniors, their desire should be to teach and empower the young ones, so that young female legal practitioners can be retained in the legal profession.

Another attendee while sharing her story, also mentioned that she was finding it difficult as a candidate legal practitioner to prepare some documents. Ms Lenyai told her that she has been made aware by her candidate legal practitioners that there are WhatsApp groups that young practitioners and candidate legal practitioners belong to. In these groups, they assist each other in that regard. She encouraged the candidate legal practitioner to join such groups, and that it would benefit her a lot.

Other attendees shared experiences and issues of sexual harassment in the legal profession. Ms Lenyai suggested that perhaps the LSSA together with the BLA, NADEL, SAWLA, the Bar associations, the Legal Practice Council and any other stakeholders interested should look at having a sort of roadshow dedicated to the issue of sexual harassment. Ms Lenyai said that the legal profession needs to be very intentional when it comes to the issue of sexual harassment.

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

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