(Being the Paper Delivered by Mrs. FunmiFalana at the Young Lawyers’ Forum, NBA (IKEJA CHAPTER) Annual General Seminar on Thursday, November 13, 2014.
It is my pleasure to be invited to discuss this topic as it has become amatter of great concern to some of us in active legal practice. I will therefore want to start by looking at how Nigerian women have fared in the legal profession. We will look at where we are coming from, where we are today and of course, where we should be.
Gender discrimination is commonly observed in various profession and has also remained the barrier that prevent a large number of women from taking up prestigious and high ranking jobs in the work force, and the legal profession is not an exception. Women are marginalized in political appointments and various decision making department of the society because of the customs and traditional practices which have continued to put Nigerian women at disadvantaged positions and the belief that women are generally not suitable for the high post.
In terms of those entering the legal profession and those currently in the legal profession and women in other professions, like teaching, nursing etc one may find the number encouraging. There seems to be an increasing symmetry between the number of women in the legal profession and the number of women in the society at large. But considering the number of women in active legal practice the number is considered unattractive as one goes higher up the career ladder, one discovers the number decreases further!
For example, how many women in practice are partners in law firms? How many women are Senior Advocates of Nigeria? Perhaps one will say women have continued to run away from the active practice of law because of the peculiar challenges women face in practice.
The History of Women in the Practice of Law
Many times we hear people say “There are no women at the bar” This common slogan arouse from the age long discrimination against women in legal practice. Uptill 1913, in Britain women were incapable of being lawyers due to their sex as they were not regarded as “person” under Solicitors Act 1843.
However, in 1913, the advocates of women rights, filed a Case in Court Bebb v. the Law Society (1914) 1CH 286 seeking a declaration that Bebbwas a “person” within the meaning of the Solicitors Act 1843 and the Amendment Acts and therefore was entitled to be admitted to the law society. However, the court dismissed the case and ruled that a woman was not eligible to practice as a solicitor of the supreme court because that right was given under the statute to a “person” and that word referred only to men! (Very Sad)
It was at the end of 1920s which marked the beginning of the emancipation of women, that the judgment was overturned by the Privy Council in Edwards v. A.G. of Canada (1930) AC 124 a landmark decision that heralded the entrance of women into the legal profession.
In 1935 just about a decade and half after this remarkable judgment Nigeria produced its first female lawyer! (Late Stella Jane Thomas).Nigeria also had Justice ModupeOladunniEbo (Nee) Akingbehin, appointed as the first female High Court Judge in Lagos State in 1969. Things however began to pick up in the 1980s with the appointment of the first female Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Chief (Mrs.) FolakeSolanke.
In 2009 Honourable Justice Aloma Mariam Mukhtar (CJN) was appointed the first female justice into the Supreme Court. Incidentally, Mrs. Aloma Mariam Mukhtar is also the first female lawyer from the northern part of Nigeria. She further made history when she was appointed the first Chief Justice of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. She truly broke down all barriers and swept the door wide open for the likes of Honourable Justice OlufunlolaOyeladeAdeleke, rtd, JSC;Honourable Justice Mary Peter Odili JSC;Honourable Justice ClaraOgunbiyi, JSC and our own Honourable Justice OlatokunboKekereEkun JSC who was appointed from the Lagos State judiciary.
Moving to the appellate court, women have also not done badly, the present President of the Court of Appeal, HonourableZainabBukachukwu JCA was appointed recently. Others in line are Honourable Justice AminaAugie who presides in Lagos division of the Court of Appeal, Honourable Justice P.A Gaduje who presides inEkiti Division, Ado Ekiti, Honourable Justice MorenikejiOgunwuniyi of the Benin Division, Honourable Justice OyebisiOmoleye, Makurdi Division, HonourableModupeFasanmi, Port Harcourt Division, Honourable Justice Dupe Komolafe-Wilson JCA. Etc.
Women, no doubt, are making waves in the appellate courts. The recent elevation to the appellate court of some female judges is indeed very commendable. Quiet a number of Chief Judges of the States in the country are women, for example, Justice OlufunmilayoAtilade of Lagos State, Justice BolajokoAdeniji(Oyo State), Justice IdongesitIsua (AkwaIbom), Justice FatiAbubakar (Niger) Justice NnennaOtiti (Abia) Justice OyebolaOjo (Osun) Justice TokunboOlapade (Ogun) and Justice Kate Abiri (Bayelsa). Women are not doing badly at all on the bench!
This remarkable trend is not reflected in private legal practice. The private practice is still dominated by men. There is need to stem up the decline in female representation in private legal practice in Nigeria. The women forum was inaugurated by the NBA in 2006 to provide equal opportunity for the advancement of women in the legal practice.
Gender diversity and gender sensitivity must be consciously promoted by the Nigerian Bar Association in positions and appointments to give women the needed encouragement especially in private legal practice. Women should be allowed to play prominent roles in the association.
Challenges Facing Women in Legal Practice
Perhaps one of the reasons for lack of many women in the private legal practice is undoubtedly the fact that professional women still have the primary responsibility of both housekeeping and child care. Despite the changing patterns of the work force it is still the case that women routinely perform a higher proportion of household chores and spend more time looking after children. The traditional role of a woman as a child bearer, house keeper and a cook for the husband, children and larger family puts her at a great disadvantage in taking her proper position at work life.
The desire to strike a balance therefore between working and family life is a big challenge. Sadly, child rearing and housekeeping are just part of the many challenges confronting women in practice. Practically speaking, most of the time, in times of appointment,women are marginalized and discriminated against.Issues of state of origin and state of marriage are often plots to marginalize and discriminate against women even in the judiciary. Most of the time the women has the misfortune of being pushed into the shadow of her husband and so she needs to work extra harder than her male contemporaries to extricate herself from the shadow, the case of Justice Jumbo Offor readily comes into memory here!
For you to get noticed as a woman you need to work twice as hard as your male counterpart would need to do.But unfortunately some women are lazy and unwilling to play by the rules of hard work to get to the top especially in legal practice. Diligent, hard work, integrity and determination are all very essential in the journey to the top!
The wrong perception about women lawyers
People usually have a wrong notion about women; they see them as not being strong enough and tender heart. It is common knowledge that clients most of the time prefer male lawyers to handle their cases including female clients for that matter. This does not translate to mean that male lawyers are more brilliant, vocal and articulate than their female colleagues but just on the premise of general perception. More regrettable is the fact that some senior lawyers are often reluctant to recruit female lawyers. They prefer male lawyers who may not even be as brilliant as the female ones. It is a man’s world!
Strategies to Success: Here below are some suggested strategies that can assist you in your journey to the top in legal practice.
- Mentoring is indeed desirable and it provides practical training, encouragement and role modeling for the young lawyers:
- Do not sit passively waiting to be noticed, map out a blue print for your own success. Opportunity may not just drop on your lap, you need to look out for opportunities. Study the life of successful lawyers and learn from them. Be proactive in seeking out opportunities for training. Work on high profile assignments, projects and service and committees. Those who have made it succeeded because they persevered. Justice Kekere- Ekun started as a Magistrate, the outgoing CJN started from the lower bench as well.
- Stay Visible
Seek out increasing responsibilities, take up difficult challenges and risk, participate in NBA / FIDA and be noticed.
- Apply Problem Solving Skills to Work Place
Use as a learning experience. Do not label every roadblock as one resulting from gender discrimination.
- Prepare for obstacle from friends if you are fast tracked or hard working
While being fast tracked is desirable, many of your colleagues or seniors may become envious of your advancement, stand for promotion of the rule of law and justice at all times.
- Pick Your battles carefully When you need to face a battle, be convinced it is worthwhile.
- Make sure your expectations are realistic. Do not be over ambitious, learn to rise through the ranks.
- Aim for outstanding performance, therefore you need to be more productive in terms of output and be prepared to work two times more than your colleagues.
- Align yourself with the right people in the legal profession. No room for laziness.
- Seek feedback on assignments / projects from your seniors via e-mail. etc.
- Seek out opportunity for training and continuing education
- Do not live in other peoples shadow.
These challenges highlighted above are just few of the obstacles keeping women away from the top in legal practice, however, women must be determined to break the glass ceiling and take their proper places at the top.