There is an apparent lack of recognition of the important role that female lawyers play and can play in justice delivery in Malawi. This role can only be conspicuous if female lawyers, as a critical group, were to create forums where they can reflect on their strengths and weaknesses and uncover obstacles—legal, institutional and cultural—that women encounter as they pursue the legal career and identify ways to begin to eliminate them.
Female lawyers should not be perceived as at odds with male counterparts nor should the important support that female lawyers receive from male counterparts be downplayed. Additionally, the differences that divide female lawyers among themselves or the effect of family responsibilities on career progress should not be ignored.
The legal profession has come a long way in Malawi. Gone are the days when the legal practice of female lawyers was endangered in private practice due to predatory tendencies by senior male lawyers. A female lawyer’s job in private practice no longer depends on her willingness to entertain the partners or attend private dinners under the guise of entertaining clients.
The number of female lawyers has steadily increased. Despite this, female lawyer presence in private practice has not been significant. There are less than five legal firms owned by female lawyers. Female lawyers establish solo legal practices while male counterparts are building partnerships. This deprives young and upcoming female lawyers nurturing opportunities to learn the tools of the trade in secure legal environments. It also retards growth of diversity of representation available to clients to give stakeholders options.
Further, a vibrant female lawyer presence in the justice sector may redeem the legal profession from disrepute amid allegations of malpractices and unethical behaviour. The legal profession is no longer perceived as noble. Female lawyers should grab this opportunity to correct things through the practice of law that promote the core values that define what it means to be a lawyer and emphasise public responsibility as opposed to economic advantage, which is the current preoccupation of most male lawyers.
Presently, the Disciplinary Committee of the Malawi Law Society (MLS) is inundated with complaints against unethical conduct of lawyers in handling of client’s money. Most of these complaints involve cases of outright embezzlement! No female lawyer has been metioned! This places de facto responsibility on female lawyers to bring sanity and nobility to the legal profession, reclaim the core values and make choices that will make a difference in the justice sector.
The legal profession in Malawi exhibits different perceptions of justice by male and female lawyers. Female lawyers have the burden of handling cases involving the vulnerable in society. Male lawyers on the other hand, target high profile or seven figure cases. Where male lawyers happen to take up legal aid work, it is not uncommon for those employed in the Legal Aid Department to quickly abandon the noble cause and start their own private practice within the Department at government expense. The lower male Bench is also known to impose suspended sentences in cases of sexual assault. Female lawyers should therefore come forward and take up key positions to contribute effectively to the delivery of justice in this male dominated sector.
Female lawyers should, therefore, embrace their role in the justice sector with vigour and recognise that they belong to a profession that is economically and politically powerful. The key is to strive to make the right kind of triumphs and the right kind of accomplishments to move forward the agenda of making the justice sector responsive to the contemporary needs of society. Female lawyers should choose well and make a difference!
- The author is Malawi’s Solicitor General and Secretary for Justice