close
Saturday July 13, 2024

Lady Justice – or not

By Nimra Arshad
September 25, 2023

“Second, in the case of female graduates, the social pressure to get married and leave the workforce ramps up hugely after the first year.”

This seemingly innocuous statement, very casually tucked in a recently published column in these pages, apparently lays out one of the reasons why law firms in Pakistan have trouble retaining their best talent. But the effectiveness of this statement doesn’t lie in the fact that it accomplishes the reason why it was written; it lies in the fact that it perfectly encapsulates why the legal profession in Pakistan is particularly cruel to female lawyers.

Much has already been said about salaries offered to junior associates on social media, so I won’t spend too many words on it. But to sum it up, junior associates are made to work anywhere between 60 and 70 hours a week (despite being of no value) but paid a pittance. Or sometimes not paid at all for months and years on end. Rent? Not our problem. Fuel? What is that? Social life? We don’t want to know. Mental health? Oh, you are asking for too much now. Okay, a second job maybe? This indicates a lack of commitment. Maybe you should reassess your priorities.

If all of the above isn’t enough, add being a woman to the mix, and you create the perfect recipe for disaster – one that unfurls slowly, fraught with its unique challenges and complexities.

It begins in the courts. Some male judges won’t look you in the eyes while you are arguing before them (and no, this is not a sign of respect!), court staff will ask you to step out of the record room and send your clerk to collect copies and male lawyers will try to harass and intimidate you. And the best part about this? These rewarding experiences happen on your own dime because law firms refuse to reimburse for trips to and from the courts.

Let’s step into our office spaces where sexism rules the roost. There are law firms in Lahore which are known for their we-don’t-send-female-associates-to-court policies.

The fact that most women in Pakistan, bound by socio-cultural norms, cannot stay in offices late into the night is held against them. “I have my most productive brainstorming sessions post 9pm, and obviously the female associates have left by then, so they don’t get to benefit from these”, said a partner at Lahore’s premier transactional firm to this author during a job interview. Yes, we are not going to institute sexual harassment policies in our firms and ensure safe work environments, but we are going to expect women to stay in office beyond work hours in spaces largely populated by men.

Let’s talk salaries. Other than the nauseating fact that some law firms pay their similarly placed male employees more than the women, there is the entrenched idea that women have their fathers or husbands financially supporting them, so they do not require a salary commensurate with their work.

Finally, the big marriage question.

Do law firms recognize the stigma associated with the legal profession in this country (courtesy our unsafe courtrooms and rowdy male counterparts) make it harder for women to convince their families to allow them to firstly, enter and then remain in the legal profession? No.

Do law firms recognize the unique challenges female professionals face in our deeply inherently patriarchal societies by offering flexible work hour policies, maternity leaves, and childcare support for their female associates? No.

Do law firms hold the possibility of marriage and children against their female employees, leading to a distinct lack of investment in their career progression? Yes.

No wonder that the number of female partners in law firms across Pakistan is abysmally low. No wonder female judges make up about 15 per cent of the judiciary in Pakistan. No wonder that we were only able to appoint our first female justice to the Supreme Court after 75 years. No wonder that women choose to switch career paths or leave the workforce.

It is ironic that Lady Justice, a symbolic representation of the moral and ethical principles of justice, is typically depicted as a female figure. Yet it is the women who continue to suffer day in and out at the hands of the agents of justice.

The writer is an advocate of the high court.