by Sonal Makhija & Swagata Raha
In her autobiography – On Balance - Justice (retd.) Leila Seth recounts her experience as a woman lawyer and the gender bias she faced in her professional career. From her legal opinion being disregarded for a “proper male opinion”, to a musty storeroom being designated as women’s washroom in the Patna High court – Seth shows us what life is like when women lawyers were rare and women judges even more so. But that was a few decades ago.
In our study Challenges Faced by Indian Women Legal Professionals we found that women litigators now still cope with the same issues: Lack of adequate sanitation facilities, overcrowded women’s work rooms in courts, and in many cases lesser fees than their male colleagues. Moreover, clients often prefer male lawyers with less experience than women with more experience or skill.
Women senior advocates widely acknowledge that a woman lawyer’s professional ability and soundness of advice arouses skepticism and doubt. Not surprisingly, women lawyers have to fight hard for their rightful fees, which their male counterparts often easily command. “Clients choose female lawyers so that they can pay lesser fees in comparison to male lawyers,” said a woman lawyer who participated in the study.
However unlike in the corporate legal sector, litigation offers a degree of independence, flexibility and an opportunity to participate in legal manoeuvring and challenging the law. For many it is the thrill of practice and quick thinking that attracts them to litigation. Also, the absence of a structured rigid nine-to-five routine allows women to juggle professional and personal commitments with some ease. Many independent practitioners work from home or convert their homes into office spaces.
“When my child was young I would finish all my work in the first half of the day. I had no idea when my matter would come up for hearing. Even later, I would be home by the afternoon for an hour to nurse my daughter and put her to bed. Then get back to court again or for meetings with my clients,” stated Jayna Kothari, an independent practitioner from Bangalore.
It is, however, also true that court practice is easier for women who have family or spouses in the legal fraternity. They manage to return to work even after taking a professional break. Liz Mathew, an Advocate –on-record in the Supreme Court, admitted the advantage of having a spouse in the profession. “Given my husband is an advocate practising at Supreme Court, I did not have to refuse any work that came to me.” But for women who have little or no support in litigation, marginal pay and lack of a professional network makes law a tough career to pursue.
Being visible in courts is part of the drill to becoming a successful lawyer. This is possibly one of the reasons why resuming work after a maternity break proves tougher for litigating women. 59% of litigating women lawyers, 24 percent of women in companies and 42% of women in law firms found the transition from maternity to work not easy.
The lack of a structured work space also means that women litigators often find little support among the community of lawyers. One litigating woman lawyer recounted how owing to lack of crèche facilities she would bring her child to court. “For about a year and odd after the baby I was in court only when I was needed, due to which there was a perception that I was not serious about my practice.
Lack of crèche facilities was a big problem during this period…So, I used to bring her in the car with me and the child would in the car parking lot for hours when I had to be in Court. Some of my other colleagues, who had babies, also followed the same routine. ”
So what would make things better for women litigators? Naturally, crèche facilities or child support measures figure high on litigating women’s needs with 80 percent of women considering it an essential infrastructural change for making courts women-friendly. Crèche facilities will not only curtail the exodus of young women lawyers from the practice, but it would also bring about equity in familial obligations for most working couples.
Ninety-three percent of women lawyers felt judges being accommodating and sensitive to pregnant women would make courts more conducive. For 79 percent of women litigators sensitivity of their colleagues at the time of pregnancy, which includes assisting in taking adjournments or handling matters in courts would be helpful. And an overwhelming 93% of women litigators in our study expressed the need for more toilets in court premises.
Possibly women were not expected to be in courts. That’s why our courts are not set up for women. At least not in large numbers. Presently out of the 397 advocates designated as Senior Advocates in the Supreme Court only five are women and of the 1872 Advocates –on- Record only 239 are women.
Until now, the Bar Council of India, the nodal authority in regulating the legal profession, has failed to establish a body that would check and receive complaints relating to sexual harassment and discrimination that women lawyers may face within court complexes. Also, the lack of a mentor or senior protecting and promoting your interests often serves as a barrier of entry for both men and women.
A mentorship programme would ensure that they are better assimilated, as well as encourage newcomers, especially first generation entrants, to join the practice. Given the long gestation period involved in litigation, and the initial meagre pay, a mentoring program would equip women with the skills required to better navigate the profession.
The study Challenges Faced by Indian Women Legal Professionals was conceptualised and authored by Swagata Raha & Sonal Makhija. Eighty one women (with children) working in law firms, companies, litigation, academia and NGOs in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore participated in the study.The study was supported and published by Rainmaker Training & Recruitment Private Limited last week. For a copy of the report, please email at firstname.lastname@example.org.