Law firms should facilitate the growth of women in the legal fraternity, which will result in crafting a more progressive legal infrastructure
yatra nāryastu pūjyante ramante tatra devatāḥ|
yatraitāstu na pūjyante sarvāstatrāphalāḥ kriyāḥ ||
verse from the Manusmriti, an ancient legal text that laid the foundation of Hindu Law, recognized eons ago that the divine rejoice where women are honoured and respected – and where they are not, all actions, all projects are fruitless.
This Sanskrit verse from the Manusmriti echoes a principle embedded in Indian society, which keeps women on a pedestal parallel to all divine things.
Empowerment by itself means the ability to make one’s own decisions in each and every sphere of life, and to endeavour to accomplish desires, aspirations and goals. However, it is just another word if resources required for achieving goals or desires are denied. So, what is obvious is that having rights without resources available to exercise those rights is nothing but a cruel joke.
It is no secret that, from time immemorial, women have been subjected to daunting and hostile environments, whether it be in their own homes or at workplaces. To a woman, empowerment connotes something more than freedom to be able to make decisions for herself without having to depend on another person. It means providing an environment conducive for her personal growth, resources to give her the support system that she needs, and, above all, a platform where her opinion or dissent is given the audience it deserves.
Empowerment of women has come to be recognized as one of the basic attributes for a progressive and thriving nation. In the words of the former secretary-general of the UN, Kofi Annan: “There is no tool for development more effective than the empowerment of women.” APJ Abdul Kalam, former president of India, was also famously quoted saying that, “empowerment of women leads to development of a good family, good society and ultimately a good nation”.
Law is always given an epoch position for its importance in maintaining proper decorum, in execution of powers, in tackling various problems, but law in itself is a matter of minute understanding, interpretation and deliberation, and hence, keeping these things in mind, a league of well-educated laureates of various ages at various times have taken efforts to practise this discipline and make it accessible to those for whom it is created and exists.
Women, however, were not its part until a considerable period into its development. Irrespective of how advanced the culture and heritage of the then society was, women were not welcomed to pursue their career in the field of law. It was only in 1869, an American woman named Arabella Mansfield became the first woman lawyer to be admitted to the Iowa state bar. Alas! The legal fraternity also had to change their archaic format and welcome women to make and establish their place within and at par with men.
In the pre-independence era of India, women’s entry into the legal profession witnessed a dramatic and yet challenging beginning, starting from a series of infamous cases. In 1916, a special bench of five judges of the High Court of Calcutta, in the case of Regina Guha, held that the word “persons”, referred to at various places in the Legal Practitioners Act, 1879, means males and not females, and thus only men could be admitted as pleaders of the subordinate courts.
Subsequently, in the Sudhansu Bala Hazra case, a full bench of the Patna High Court once again upheld the above-mentioned view. Both high courts negated the argument taken by the petitioners, relying upon the General Clauses Act, 1868, that the words importing the masculine gender should also include females.
The courts held that it was not the intention of the legislature to reverse established policy or introduce a fundamental change in long-established principles of law that barred women’s admission as pleaders. Interestingly, the judges authoring these judgments unanimously observed that their duty as judges was limited to declaration of law, and whether any change in the law was wise or expedient was for the legislature to consider.
After these two significant developments, the Indian legislature finally passed the Legal Practitioners (Woman) Act, 1923, removing the disqualification and affirming that “no woman shall, by reason only of her sex, be disqualified from being admitted or enrolled as a legal practitioner, or from practising as such”. The passing of this act allowed women lawyers to be enrolled as pleaders and practise in the courts of India.
Post-independence, and upon adoption of the Indian Constitution in 1950, Indian women were conferred with fundamental and constitutional rights to safeguard their status and position in society, including right of equality, right against discrimination only on grounds of sex, freedom to practise any profession, etc. The framers of the Indian Constitution considered empowerment of women in a society as a key to development.
However, in India, up until the past two decades or so, the legal profession was not a preferred profession for women owing to concerns such as the lack of a female-sensitized workplace environment, low compensation, and fewer avenues available compared to male counterparts. Fortunately, the scenario at workplaces nowadays is better.
Applying the concept of women’s empowerment in the legal fraternity, particularly within law firms, it becomes all the more indispensable to ensure that women lawyers are given the right kind of support, as it is the most effective way to pierce through multiple barriers of communication, for instance those that may exist between a male attorney and a female client in certain situations.
Law firms today recognize the need to have an ecosystem that is gender neutral and at the same time appreciative of the different requirements men and women have. Effective initiatives such as women affinity groups, work-life balance, support during maternity leave, equal opportunities, etc., are being constantly adopted by most firms across the globe.
Law firms also are trying to ensure a safe atmosphere by forming groups and committees at workplaces to address issues of sexual harassment, gender discrimination, pay disparity, etc. An increase in the number of women lawyers in leadership roles in law firms has also ensured that the concerns of women lawyers are better addressed.
At ORTIS Law Offices, we take pride in the fact that we have a higher women-to-men ratio at work, and also endeavour to ensure that our women lawyers engage in assignments that give them the best professional exposure. Women lawyers at the firm are routinely appointed (by varied multinational companies having their branch/subsidiary offices in India) as independent members on the internal complaints committees mandated under the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013.
More and more women are coming forward to choose law as an option, and it is reflected in the increase in the number of women at top-level management in top-tier firms. Speaking of women’s role in the legal fraternity, the slow but very apparent increase and prominence of women in the judiciary cannot be left unaddressed.
Needless to say, the balance held by the “Lady of Justice” still weighs more for men than women, as far as the number of currently presiding judges is concerned. For instance, in the Supreme Court of India, there are currently only three women judges out of a total of 32. In Delhi High Court, currently there are eight women judges, while the total strength is 33. These numbers, however, should not be given a permanent status, and the endeavour of all agencies involved in the Indian legal framework should be to bring in more positive changes by participating and encouraging involvement of women judges.
We know how important it is to lay a strong foundation, so as to ensure a solid building. As a woman is the first building block of society, it is all the more necessary that a woman is empowered to do all that she wants, in the way that she wants, and when she chooses to do what she wants.
More than ever, today it should be the endeavour of all law firms to facilitate the growth of women in the legal fraternity, which will result in crafting a more progressive legal infrastructure. A quaint but charming Latin saying goes, alis volatpropriis, which in English means, “she flies with her own wings”. This whispers gently a simple but significant message for the world.
Nothing contained in this article purports to be or is intended as legal advice, and the reader should seek appropriate legal advice before acting on any information or view expressed herein.
ORTIS LAW OFFICES
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