Opinion: There’s no Justice in Silence

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By Innocent Anaba

Mrs Soibi Oviais is a Partner with Duale Ovia & Alex-Adedipe, DOA law firm. She is a litigation and dispute resolution lawyer based in Lagos. She specialises in civil and commercial litigation and other forms of dispute resolution including Arbitration, Negotiation and Mediation.

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In this interview, she speaks on experience of women in the law profession, among many other issues.

In your assessment of the legal practice in Nigeria, do you think female lawyers have had equal opportunities?

In the early years of the legal profession, it appeared to be a male-dominated profession, until the very gradual disruption of this stereotype began in the early 1980s. It took 10 long years for the first woman, Chief Folake Solanke, SAN, to be conferred with the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria being the highest rank attainable by a legal practitioner in Nigeria.

The path to equal opportunities in the legal profession, as in any aspect of life is a journey, the recent years have been excellent in terms of the increasing symmetry between the number of women in the legal profession and the number of women in leadership positions in the society at large.

Nigeria has only produced a female CJN in history to the best of my knowledge. What do you think is responsible for this disparity?

In my opinion, the reason for the sole female CJN is merely that of chance as the office of the CJN comes with the hierarchy of rank among the Supreme Court Justices. This is coupled with the mandatory retirement age for Justices which means there are a number of Justices who would never become CJN including a number of female Justices. No doubt, if we have more female Justices elevated to the Supreme Court of Nigeria, we may see our chances of having another female CJN increase in the near future.

As a partner at a reputable firm, it is inevitable that you may have been involved in the recruitment process. Are you gender-sensitive when you select candidates or when you have to recommend someone for promotion?

At our law firm, we ensure we create a balanced and equal opportunity for our people and an environment conducive for every member of our team. The firm adopts a transparent performance-based system for recruitment, promotions and professional development by ensuring the key performance indicators and assessment points are available to every team member undergoing the process.

What are some of the gender stereotypes that are prevalent in legal practice in Nigeria for female lawyers?

Every industry/profession has its stereotypes, the legal profession is not an exception. For instance, there is a predominant assumption that litigation lawyers are mostly men and where female litigators exist, they deal mostly with non-contentious matters. There is also the notion that a company secretary should be a woman. There have been various arguments proposed to defend these stereotypes, however, it should not be that a person, regardless of their skills set, and experience becomes more suited for a role only based on his or her gender.

Have you had any personal encounter wherein your ability to perform a task was questioned because of your gender?

A benefit I have enjoyed in my career so far is the environment and culture of the firms and organisations I have worked at. My previous employers and my partners have never discredited me or undermined my ability based on my gender.

FIDA is one of the international associations that has been very proactive in championing the rights of women. Do you think we need more associations like that to strengthen female lawyers?

The International Federation of Women Lawyers, is an international non-governmental, non-profit organisation aimed at ensuring the improvement of women and children’s welfare, the study of comparative law, and promoting a just and equitable environment where the interests of women are protected and guaranteed. Associations with similar goals targeted at female lawyers will contribute immensely to promoting and strengthening the rights and interests of female lawyers.

Sexual harassment is a commonplace practice in the work environment and is a leading reason why some women have missed out on promotions or other opportunities. What’s your take and what are some of the suggestions you have for women lawyers who may be dealing with this at the moment?

Speak up. This has also been my ethos on the issues of sexual harassment and bias at the workplace generally. I believe there is no justice in silence and that the more women voice out their experiences in the workplace and outside of the workplace, the more they lend a credible voice to women all over the world to stand up and speak up against all forms of harassment, bias and discrimination.

What initiative(s) do you have now or aspire to take on in future to promote equal opportunities for women lawyers, destroy negative stereotypes, or any other gender-related issue?

At our law firm, we make it a duty to initiate all lawyers in any area of practice as their competence allows. We do not see any practice area as too volatile for any gender and encourage all our lawyers to tackle issues arising in any given situation they encounter.

More organisations around the world are designing the structures that can make the workplace more inclusive. Do you know of any organisational policy in your law firm that has contributed to the wellbeing of women? E.g. crèche services in the law firm, flexible working hours for nursing mothers or mothers of children below age 12 etc?

We allow for flexible working hours for pregnant and nursing mothers and give adequate leave periods with full benefits.

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