Reviving and restoring female legal practitioners: Creating a competitive space for women and men to co-exist

September 15th, 2022
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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), on ‘Reviving and restoring female legal practitioners’. At the first webinar under the topic ‘Creating a competitive space for women and men to co-exist’ and ‘Is the legal profession transformative?: A diagnosis of where we come from, where we are and where we are going, looking at the current statistics of women across the demographics’, the President of the LSSA, Mabaeng Denise Lenyai, said in the welcoming address that the webinars – which were the brainchild of the LSSA Women’s Task Team – aim to give female legal practitioners a platform where they can speak among themselves in a relaxed environment and discuss matters that are pertinent to female legal practitioners. She said that in the past, webinars of this nature would have had speakers lecturing female legal practitioners on what their challenges are, however, the LSSA Women’s Task Team thought it best to give female legal practitioners a platform to discuss their challenges themselves.

The first speaker at the webinar, member of NADEL and the LSSA’s House of Constituents and Executive Committee, Ugeshnee Naicker, told attendees that the LSSA has a union function and is taking on professional issues to build a better independent legal profession. She added that it is through programmes such as the Women’s Month series, the LSSA will help in effecting change in the legal profession.

Ms Naicker pointed out that female legal practitioners should be fighting their issues in the core area of struggle and not at the periphery. She added that the LSSA is the right place to do so, as it is the driving force of the legal profession. Ms Naicker drafted a methodology, which she said was going to help attendees of the webinar to achieve their goal in addressing issues that women face. By approaching problems with the basic understanding of the topic of the webinar by breaking it down by:

  • First, examining the key concept.
  • Secondly, make a diagnosis of the problem that women in the legal profession, society, and the world face, because we know that the law does not just affect the legal profession, but the society and the world at large.
  • Thirdly, analyse possible solutions to engage and interact, adding that women are solution driven by nature.

Ms Naicker shared a story about the Women in Law Dialogue that was hosted by the Department of Justice, in August 2016, where she was one of the speakers. She said that she was disappointed that after the dialogue, certain people in the legal profession said that the dialogue was nothing but a complaints workshop for women, to which Ms Naicker pointed out that this kind of narrative must end. She added that another narrative that must change, is the narrative that women use forums so that a few women can attach it to their careers. ‘We are labelled as careerist. It is one of the many labels against intelligent, aspiring, qualified and able women,’ Ms Naicker said.

Ms Naicker said: ‘We must work to defeat counterproductive and obstructive narrative created about us. We do this by being solution driven and ensuring that our solutions are implemented correctly’. She spoke about the words she highlighted from the topic. Namely –

  • competitive space;
  • co-existence with male legal practitioners; and
  • meaningful transformation in the legal profession.

Ms Naicker said that there has been some transformation in the profession, however, she believes that some of the transformation that has happened is merely cosmetic. She pointed out that it is time for female legal practitioners to extend the traditional understanding of what the solution will be that fits with the current narrative of the legal profession and to think outside the box.

Further in the presentation, Ms Naicker said that despite the increase in the number of female legal practitioners post-1994, female legal practitioners are still not afforded the same opportunities as their male counterparts. She also made a list of the current values that dictate the narrative of the legal profession, namely –

  • historical relations and connections in the profession;
  • cultural alienation by males, such as socialisation after hours, for example, playing golf;
  • racism (window dressing for B-BBEE points);
  • harassment; and
  • briefing patterns and many others.

Ms Naicker further pointed out that the narrative that female legal practitioners are not as qualified as their male counterparts is something that the profession needs to do away with. She added that regarding legal education, transformation must happen at a basic level, so that when young male legal practitioners come to the legal profession they already know about the equality of women. She said that when there were talks about access to the profession, the goal was to remove barriers in the legal profession so that everyone in the profession is seen as one, which includes removing the distinction between junior and senior legal practitioners.

Ms Naicker mentioned one of the many barriers that the LSSA worked hard on to ensure that it was not only for certain individuals. She spoke about conveyancing and said that it was a barrier because it is a lucrative area of practice, which was confined to a certain class of individuals. She pointed out that the LSSA wants to engage with legal practitioners who go to court on a day-to-day basis, to understand how they are treated.

Member of NADEL’s National Executive Committee, Bukky Olowookorun, said the question whether the profession should be excited about the role achieved in transformation regarding the number of women in the legal profession, would be an illusionary excitement. Ms Olowookorun, pointed out that female legal practitioners accounts for 43% of the legal profession, however, she asked whether the 43% is active and substantively practising? She said that there is little to be excited about and asked what percentage of women that study law, and complete their LLB, but due to the pressure, lack of work and family dynamics, decide not to practise.

Ms Olowookorun added statistics show that there are female law graduates and qualified female legal practitioners, who are not practising as they should. She pointed out that these percentages from statistics need to be broken down to show that there is nothing to be excited about. She said that the numbers are growing. The profession should move away from looking at numbers, but look at substance, make efforts in moving around in circles and stop creating an illusion of growth, which does not translate to actual growth.

Programme director and member of the LSSA Women’s Task Team, Ncumisa Sotenjwa, added that one of the resolutions that will be looked at after the webinar is the issue of substance, because numbers can look good, but the quality and reality is just as important. One of the attendees pointed out that female legal practitioners need to dig deeper to ensure that the numbers indeed reflect that doors have been opened to female legal practitioners to occupy spaces.

Another attendee raised an important point with regard to the discussion of equality, that the issue of maternity leave for candidate legal practitioners should be investigated. She said that the Legal Practice Council (LPC) states in its requirements that a candidate legal practitioner cannot at any given time during their Practical Vocational Training (PVT) be absent for more than 30 working days during any one year of service under the contract of PVT. The attendee said the Legal Practice Act 28 of 2014 does not take into consideration that some people when coming into the profession are not 21 years old but are women with aspirations of starting or growing families of their own. Ms Sotenjwa added that the issue with the requirement of candidate legal practitioners that was raised is one of the barriers to access to the legal profession.

Ms Olowookorun pointed out that she went through a similar experience. She said that she came to the profession while she was already married, then lost her child. When she got pregnant again, she had to plan her pregnancy in such a way that by the time she delivered it would not be at the time she did her PVT. She suggested that maybe that requirement should include words such as, with exception to maternity leave or when one has an illness that requires absence from work for a period of more than 30 working days. She said that the requirements should not only be attributed to women, as men can also get sick.

An attendee contributed to the discussion noting that some female legal practitioners are only exposed to certain areas of law, adding that some male principals limit their candidates to certain work and not all the work available. Ms Naicker responded that there should be a clear document that speaks to principals that they should teach candidate legal practitioners all the work in all the areas of law, and not limit them to certain work. She said that she also experienced it when she was a candidate legal practitioner where she was only exposed to commercial law and by the time she started practising as a legal practitioner she had to teach herself criminal law.

Ms Naicker suggested that the LPC should do check-ups on principals and have a complaints number for candidate legal practitioners where they can complain without giving away their identity, so they will not be victimised. Ms Lenyai told attendees that the LSSA has a mentoring programme, she said that she would ask those who are responsible for that programme to make it more visible so that the LSSA can pair candidates with mentors.

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

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