This week is one of those times where we, as a country, wonder if the constitution is simply a suggestion. Many lawyers have complained of studying and practising law in a lawless state. Like with most issues, women’s experiences take a unique form. In this article, nine Nigerian female lawyers talk about practising law in Nigeria.
I have had clients who refuse to pay me what they would pay my male colleagues because of misogyny. This has happened to me three times over the past year. There was this client my aunt introduced me to. We were discussing one of his properties when he asked me to send him nudes. I was like from where to where? He was my biggest client at the time so I ignored him. After everything, he was to pay me 100k, and he kept posting me. He would say things like, “You are a woman, what are you using that amount of money for?” To date, he still hasn’t paid me.
Another client asked for my number under the guise of helping him prepare a contract. Instead of listening to me, he would be telling me he wants to make me his second wife. When I asked him for his email address to send an invoice for the contract so he can pay a deposit and I can start working, he said he has a lawyer and he just wanted to help me.
I am expected to handle all of this professionally. I can’t call them out because I am afraid of being professionally blacklisted.
When I was in law school, I worked at a small law firm as part of the bar assessment. The lawyer who owned the firm was also a lecturer at my university, so he didn’t always come to the office. He said I and the other women from law school that worked there didn’t have to come to work all the time, which was fine with us, since we were preparing for bar exams. Sometimes, we would go because we had to fill our log sheet with activities. But the man always made us run errands every time we went to the office. It was extra annoying because there were two other male lawyers and a cleaner in the office as well. One day, we got to work and the office was dirty — the cleaner wasn’t around. The owner of the firm asked us, the female law students, to clean it, talking about how we will behave in our husband’s house. It was such a degrading experience.
I wouldn’t describe it as a smooth experience. Most law firms are inherently misogynistic in their policies and practices.
Female lawyers are often passed over for high profile cases outside jurisdiction because they are supposedly meant to be catering to their homes and wouldn’t have time for such cases.
There is also a sexual harassment problem in law firms — I have heard of instances where senior partners harass female junior associates. There is a certain way a female lawyer is supposed to look and it changes depending on the setting. In courts you can’t be too pretty or flashy, else there’s an assumption that you don’t know what you’re doing. At the office, you have to wear makeup and high heels to be taken seriously. I hate all of it.
I used to work in a law firm where I experienced a lot of benevolent sexism. I had a supervisor who used to infantilize women. He would say, “ Why would a woman be carrying her case file when I’m there?” or “Why would I send a woman to a case out of town when there are men there?” and so on. There are a lot of gender roles within the profession. Most people believe that men are better at litigation than women. I saw that while my peers and I were paid the same amount as the men, our superiors also expected the women to take up roles like party planning or sharing food. I also noticed that the bias becomes more visible as you climb the ladder. When I was being interviewed for the job, they asked me if I had a boyfriend and when I planned on getting married. They wanted to know how long I could work for them before, according to them, marriage and kids get in the way.
Clients also have a bias against us. They accord my male colleagues more respect than they do me because I am a woman. It’s baffling. When I say something, they argue with me but when my male colleague says the same thing they immediately agree. I’ve had a client call me “Babe” multiple times and comment on my looks in front of my male supervisor. They laughed about it. My voice is tiny and my physique is small. People tend to use my voice and appearance to try to discredit what I say or try to bully me and stuff. I’ve learned to hold my ground but I wish I didn’t have to.
First and foremost, practising law in Nigeria is hard. After all that stress from university and law school, we are offered peanuts as salary. As a practising female lawyer, I have to work harder than my male counterparts because there is an assumption that female lawyers are not good enough. Male colleagues are more likely to be promoted than female lawyers.
There is also the case of being addressed as gentlemen at the bar. It doesn’t look like anyone is questioning and I don’t understand why. I have also heard people say female lawyers don’t make good wives. I don’t even understand the rationale behind this.
I washed my hands off practising litigation from the beginning — I am more of a corporate lawyer. It is a fun and rewarding experience but Lagos traffic ruins everything. My house is quite far from the firm I work at, so I spend an average of four hours in traffic every day. This kills the vibe for me.
There was a time I had a case outside our jurisdiction, which I was looking forward to. But my boss told me to stay back at the Chambers because I am a woman.
He said I couldn’t cope with the stress. What happened to me gaining experience on how proceedings are done outside my state?
Then there’s the dress code. I can’t dye my hair because I’m a lawyer. I can’t make bum length braids because I’m a lawyer. So many things I’d like to do but can’t because I am always in court and I don’t want the judge to embarrass me.
It’s tough being a young female lawyer in Nigeria. On some days, it’s the absolute ghetto. On other days, it’s okay. People think I don’t know as much as my male counterparts. There is this shock on some clients’ faces when they realize they will be attended to by a female lawyer. There are the clients that make passes at you during the first meeting. It’s all very annoying.
I worked in one of the biggest law firms in Nigeria and I faced emotional, verbal, and sexual abuse while working there. I thought the owner of the firm was a father figure, so it took a while for me to see his behaviour for what it was. Sometimes, he would walk up to me to say that he wanted someone to lay on his back — someone with my body stature. Other times, he would remove the pendant of my necklace from in between my breasts and say, “As a lady, your necklace should sit on your breasts.” He had a habit of dusting off invisible dirt on my clothes. He would send me errands in front of clients and insult me even when everything goes right just to belittle me in front of everyone. I was the only female lawyer in the office so I was alone dealing with this.