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Friday June 21, 2024

Young lawyer or net loss?

By Laiba Qayyum
October 01, 2023

In Pakistan’s legal corridors, a generation of young legal minds grapple with distinctive trials, stoically bearing the weight of a profession that pledges justice but recurrently falters in its delivery. While the urge to maintain gender impartiality remains compelling, it is an inescapable truth that the uphill battle becomes even steeper when the aspiring lawyer is a female. A glimpse of this struggle can be found in how recent statements in an article by a senior lawyer, who began by conceding to the unfair practices entrenched within the legal fraternity, categorized new lawyers as a 'bad investment’ and ‘net loss’, reserving litigation as an exclusive privilege of the 'resourceful.' With personal anecdotes, I would like to explore the struggle of survival in an environment that routinely exploits idealism under the facade of mentorship.

The initial challenge emerges at the doorstep of law firms or even chambers, for those applying without the crutch of ‘influential connections’. As pointed out by the senior lawyer in his piece, the hiring process is largely reliant upon the ‘whose daughter’ and ‘whose son’ principles, creates an impenetrable barrier to meritocracy proponents and strikes harder at those with humble origins and without the privilege of a resourceful background.

The very essence of fairness and impartiality stands compromised at the entry point, prompting critical questions about the profession’s commitment to its principles. For women, many doors bear the distressful disclaimer of not hiring female associates. This exclusion emanates from concerns about commuting difficulties, reservations about working late hours and perceived limitations on handling external tasks. During an interview at a prominent law firm, I was informed that my lack of a personal vehicle and the rigid stance against compromising my safety on public transport rendered me less valuable to them. This highlights how personal circumstances, unrelated to one’s legal capabilities, influence the already scarce opportunities.

Yet another formidable obstacle arises in the lack of a formal employment contract, leaving young entrants with little comprehension of their roles, the ambiguity of work hours and restricted visibility in their line of reporting. I clearly remember the perplexing ambiguity that shrouded my reporting structure. I grappled with the task of deciphering who I was to report to regarding my progress and in what order of priority I was to complete the work handed by each of them.

The non-issuance of a contract violates the fundamental rights of a new graduate by depriving them of any negotiating leverage, fostering vulnerability to exploitation and perpetuating a power imbalance favouring the employers. Then comes the controversial remuneration debate and the value of a young lawyer.

In a country where inflation has skyrocketed to unprecedented heights and necessities have become exclusive privileges of the elite, a young lawyer is rendered incapable of even daring to question whether they will receive a stipend – or if at all. In my first job, I never garnered the courage to inquire about my compensation, holding the belief that true reward lies in the experience that I would gain. Honestly, my lack of financial responsibilities, especially those related to household management, contributed to this mindset. However, it is undeniable that I graduated with a degree that placed a substantial financial burden on my salaried parents and I remain a dormant investment because my profession still debates if compensation should even be given – let alone a living wage.

It is beyond my imagination to understand the anguish experienced by fresh entrants fraught with household responsibilities, who find themselves struggling for survival while toiling in chambers that exploit them under the pretext of a mentor-mentee relationship. However, our regulatory bar appears to be in deep slumber, only awakening from its latency during election seasons, paying scant attention to the rampant exploitation that rots the legal profession.

Turning attention to the unnoticed mouse in the room, which was unmistakably evident in the eloquent assertions of senior lawyers on how a junior does not add any value, is the disheartening reality that many within the profession are quick to instil self-doubt in young lawyers. The work of a young lawyer is dismissed for being inadequate or inconsequential – for instance, the exhaustive case law research undertaken by him. Yet, paradoxically, the judgments are rushed to be printed just a day before the case is fixed.

This is an insidious strategy that compels individuals to question the worth of their efforts and believe that their work is undeserving of compensation. Consequently, numerous lawyers entertain the notion that acquiring further educational credentials would amplify their worth to the firm and offer better career avenues. Paradoxically, they fail to realize that the very legal market which they aim to impress will castigate them for pursuing new skills, as it seeks to hire individuals who are less likely to pursue opportunities elsewhere. Likewise, the opaque career advancement within law firms mirrors the nepotistic politics of our country and shrouds the young lawyer's journey with uncertainty, leaving her/him in darkness about when or if they will ever ascend to greater responsibilities.

The demand for ‘seat warmers’ and the mindset that you cannot leave until the senior departs perpetuates a sacrifice of personal life to conform to the norms of the legal profession. For women, the evaluation of their competence hinges on their willingness to neglect family responsibilities, pronouncing them disobedient at home and ineffective at work. In the case of unmarried female lawyers, parental concerns for safety and returning home late are painted as incapability and add a layer of challenge.

In summation, the legal profession remains ensnared in its own web of challenges. The unfortunate irony is that those in positions of authority, who can bring out change, tend to justify these practices as an initiation rite, advancing a cycle of abuse in the name of tradition. The imperative for bar councils to regulate the legal realm by institutionalizing law firms and chambers cannot be overstated. By instituting mandatory employment contracts, setting pay scales, and introducing hiring guidelines, the bar councils can bring transparency, impartiality and accountability within the profession.

The writer is a lawyer based in Islamabad. She tweets/posts @laibawayyum