The changing face of the legal profession and the impact of gender and diversity in Nigeria
Funke Adekoya SAN1
AELEX Partners, Lagos
As members of the Women Lawyers’ Interest Group, we all understand what gender means, but what of ethnic diversity? For the purposes of this article, by diversity I will be referring to the different ethnic nationalities that co-exist in Nigeria. Does the fact that both men and women from different ethnic backgrounds practice law in Nigeria have any impact on the legal profession, and should it? I will address this topic in four stages:
- Is this an issue in Nigeria?
- Should it be an issue?
- The benefits to the profession of addressing gender and diversity issues in private legal practice; and
- how can we address gender and diversity issues?
Is it an issue in Nigeria?
The International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA)2 in Nigeria has made great strides through its state branches in highlighting and championing the causes of women and children in society.3 However, the focus has not been on the problems facing women within the legal profession.
Perhaps because the Nigerian Constitution forbids discrimination of any sort4 the Nigerian Bar Association does not officially recognise gender or ethnic diversity as an issue in the Nigerian legal profession. Unlike Bar Associations in many other countries,5 the Nigerian Bar Association does not have a diversity committee or any operational diversity policies. Notwithstanding this, in 2006 it inaugurated the Women’s Forum to foster fellowship between women in the legal profession and to enhance their general welfare in practice. The Women’s Forum is committed to providing equal opportunity for the advancement of women in the legal field, with a focus on the advancement of women in their respective practices.6
Although there is very little information published about ethnic diversity issues in the legal profession, the actions of the NBA in attempting to zone their elections indicates that ethnic diversity is an issue in the legal profession.7 Under a proposed inclusion or diversity policy, the current ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ – whereby the presidency is zoned to reflect ethnic diversity in the profession –would be expanded to include other offices which would be rotated around the geo-political zones of the country to enable equal representation from all segments in society.
Even at the level of elevation to the rank of Senior Advocate, Nigeria’s ethnic diversity has become a factor to be acknowledged and reckoned with. The Legal Practitioners Privileges Committee now has a written policy that gender and ethnic diversity are considerations for the grant of the rank.
Should it be an issue?
Taking a global perspective, many articles have been published about the small numbers of women who go on to practice law in firms. Data also shows that despite the 50:50 female: male ratio in law schools, only about 27 per cent of women are currently working in law firms in the US.8 At the managerial and partnership levels there are even fewer women, with only five per cent of them reaching the level of partner.9 Another thing that research has shown is that there is a gender pay gap. It is more likely that when you take two people; a man and a woman, with identical resumés, the man will earn on average 15 per cent more than the woman. The same stereotypes that have caused the marginalisation of women thus far still exist today, especially in relation to work-life balance.
Available data about women in the Nigerian legal profession illustrates that the Women’s Forum was long overdue. Looking at the numbers from an article by Karen J Mathis (a past president of the American Bar Association), the ratio of female to male lawyers in America is currently 50:50; however, these high numbers are not reflected at the management or more senior levels of the profession. The ratio in Nigeria entering the legal profession is about 60:40 while the picture at the top of the profession is similar to that in America.16 As of December 2007, there were only seven female Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SAN) out of the 234 Senior Advocates the country has ever had. This means that women account for only 3.4 per cent of the total number of SANs.10 Female SANs in Nigeria have spoken openly about the challenges and discrimination that they faced. They also acknowledge that some of those same issues are still present today.
This discrepancy, however, does not seem to be present in the judiciary; in the Lagos Judiciary, for example, as of July 2004, the number of female judges exceeds their male counterparts by a 2:1 ratio.11 The ratio at the lower bench is even higher. Other States also have a sizeable number of female judges with about seven now having female Chief Judges. However, the figures decrease as we move higher up on the judicial echelon: 14 female judges out of 60 at the Court of Appeal, and only one (our revered Justice Aloma Muktar) at the Supreme Court. Anecdotal research also indicates that after three to five years at the private bar, a sizeable number of female lawyers have made the switch to the corporate sector as legal advisers and company secretaries. In this area we acknowledge those who reached the heights long ago such as Chief Mrs Yomi Balogun, one-time Company Secretary of UACN, Mrs Lande Fadipe, one-time Company Secretary of Royal Exchange Assurance Plc, and presently Chief Sena Anthony, Coordinator and General Manager, Corporate Secretariat and Legal Division/Secretary to the Corporation at NNPC. The rationale for the large number of women in the judiciary and the corporate sector might be that this part of the profession provides more consistent working hours and financial returns at a time in our lives when family responsibilities tend to increase when compared to the work schedule of a lawyer in private practice. A newly married female lawyer needs not only stable and predictable working hours but an adequate source of revenue at this time of her life, especially if her husband is starting to climb his career ladder and the family therefore needs a stable income. Work-life balance issues are often cited as reasons for the move from the private bar to the corporate world or the judiciary, where many women have been able to excel in their chosen careers while maintaining a relatively healthy family life. Thus we can infer in the absence of a wealth of information that these same issues that have caused the poor representation of female lawyers in managerial and partnership positions globally are still at play in Nigeria.
It goes without saying that our gender and cultural background affect our perception of issues and have an impact upon the positions we take and the judgments we make. The differing positions taken on the advisability of a Child Rights Act is a case in point. This diversity of views and opinions can only bring value to the decision making process as all shades of opinions and points of view will be considered in advising a client. Clearly where gender and diversity are not present, the client gets a ‘monochrome’ view of the possibilities open to it.
The number of senior female private legal practitioners practicing before our courts is declining. The work hours are long and it can be a highly competitive environment. The result is that while the judiciary and the corporate legal sector become more ‘feminine’, the top echelon of the private practice bar is still male-dominated. If the private bar is not to lose the benefits of the large number of women who enter the legal profession each year to the judiciary and the corporate sector, we need to address the reasons why women are voting with their feet.
Since the NBA can consider establishing a clear structure for recognising ethnic diversity within the profession for the purposes of its elections as a national officer, it is safe to say that whether or not that is the best way of addressing the issue, ethnic/gender diversity in the legal profession has to be addressed. As such it is more than likely that if such policies are necessary at the Bar Association level, the issues of ethnic and gender discrimination or marginalisation may exist in law firms and chambers in Nigeria. However, in the absence of concrete evidence to support this claim, no conclusions or valid assumptions can be drawn about the matter.
The benefits of addressing gender and diversity issues in private legal practice
RETAINING WOMEN IN PRIVATE PRACTICE:
- Senior women at the private bar show new entrants that women can reach senior levels in private legal practice./li>
- Reaching the level of partner and/or Senior Advocate of Nigeria is indeed very prestigious and provides mentoring opportunities for younger women.
- Women communicate and process information in a more intuitive manner, so with more women on the bench, it can’t hurt a law firm to have women lawyers in the courts; and with more women in the corporate sector, it can’t hurt a client to have a female lawyer as outside counsel.
- It is important to ensure that the perspective of women on legal issues is sought.
LAW FIRMS WILL BE MORE REFLECTIVE OF THEIR CLIENT MARKET:
- Women comprise 50 per cent of the population, perhaps up to 25 per cent of them (12.5 per cent of the population) will be a consumer of legal services. This is a veritable market to be tapped.
- Clients like their legal advisers to mirror them. If clients have women at their upper echelon of management, they will expect the same in the law firms they deal with. Male dominated law firms can be seen as chauvinistic. In addition, women are often more comfortable talking to women about particular legal issues that affect them, such as family law, probate and succession issues.
ABILITY TO PROVIDE MORE DIVERSE LEGAL SERVICES:
- Law firms and chambers will more easily be able to attract female clients into their offices.
It is a fact of nature that people are more comfortable in their own cultural background.
- Law firms which reflect Nigeria’s ethnic diversity will find it easier to expand past the geographical or business area where the existing firm is based and provide legal services over a wider area.
- Growth of the legal profession into national law firms will be the result.
- Another point to note will be the ability to attract a wider client base.
How can we address gender and diversity issues? Having agreed that both gender and ethnic diversity are beneficial to law firms in private legal practice, what can we do to ensure that women and ethnically diverse lawyers retain their proper place within the profession?
Those who have studied the issue all agree that the difficulties that women face arise from their customary roles in society. As a result many female lawyers find their careers interrupted when they have children; their careers are put on hold due to childcare responsibilities, and some careers will eventually fade out. In the event that women are able to return to the workforce, they often find themselves in areas of law that do not provide sufficient opportunities for financial reward or the advancement to senior positions that their male counterparts might have been exposed to.
Some of the things that we can do to address this issue are:
- Acknowledging that the problem exists and creating awareness about the so-called ‘glass ceiling’;/li>
- changing the mindset that assumes that women who value their families are not serious about the practice of law;
- implementing flexible working hours and technology within the firm so that women can have a work-life balance that ensures they can stay within private legal practice while also fulfilling family roles;
- creating ways for women to advance though the ranks;
- closing the gender pay gap and ensuring that people are paid as is appropriate to their qualifications and work alone and not their gender
Having agreed that the ethnic diversity of Nigerian lawyers can be of benefit to the private bar, there are certain things that partners or proprietors of law firms can do to increase diversity:
- Seek out diverse candidates to fill positions; in doing this one must be careful and ensure that one does not sacrifice merit in the process.
- Hiring individuals who fit into organisation irrespective of what part of the country they come from.
- Allowing individuals to practice in the areas in which they are most proficient in, which will allow them to draw in new business as long as it is in line with the firm’s normal operations.
- Deploying loyal and committed employees to new sites when establishing them.
- Changing corporate culture to reinforce traits that will promote growth and diversity within the organisation.
- Actively demonstrating to junior associates from diverse backgrounds that they have a future with the firm.
Currently, women are under-represented at the upper echelons of the private bar, but are holding their own in the judiciary and to a lesser extent in the corporate sector. In an ethnically diverse society, and with the current influx of women into the profession, it makes economic sense to ensure that these resources are adequately tapped by the private bar. Adequate training and suitable working conditions that fully take into account the cultural burdens which women bear will yield positive results for private legal practice.
1 I gratefully acknowledge the research assistance of Miss Oreoluwa Fatimilehin, law student at the Arizona State University and a summer intern at Aelex in the preparation of this paper.
2 Federacion International De Abogadas or International Federation of Women Lawyers.
3 Support for the Childs Rights Act, highlighting effects of female genital mutilation, degrading widowhood rites and discriminatory customary succession rights for example.
4 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, www.nigeria-law.org/ConstitutionOfTheFederalRepublicOfNigeria.htm#Chapter_3.
5 The Nigerian Bar Association, www.nigerianbar.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1&Itemid=6.
6 About NBA Women Forum, www.nbawomenforum.org.
7 De-branding the NBA – Exposing the Makurdi NEC Agenda of Agbakoba S.A.N . http://squibcoverstory.blogspot.com/2008/02/vol-8-no-17-18th-february-2008.html.
8 Abe Krash, The Changing Legal Profession, www.dcbar.org/for_lawyers/resources/virtual_library/download.cfml?filename=changing_legal_profession, pp27-34.
9 Karen J Mathis, Status of Women in the Legal Profession around the World, 2003, www.womeninlaw.com/newsletter2/mathis.htm.
10 The Supreme Court of Nigeria, www.scn.gov.ng/portal/detail.php?link=san.
11 The Lagos State Judiciary Judges, www.nigeria-law.org/LagosStateJudiciaryJudges.htm, as of July 2004.
12 E Cruickshank, Women in the Law. Strategic Career Management. The Law Society, June 2003, p81.
13 J Ghannam, Making Diversity Work, ABA Journal, Mar 2001, Vol 87 Issue 3, p58, 6p, 4c.