On the second floor of the Milimani Chief Magistrates’ Law Courts, just above the stairs, is an endless sea of people all squeezed in a room. The room is devoid of beauty. Its walls are simply cream with slight peeling. A glass counter separates us from the judiciary staff that work in the registry. On our side, there is nothing but two old cigarette-brown colored rickety long benches. In between them is a worn-out black winged armchair with one broken leg. An odour hangs in the stagnant air like we just went into some pit.
“Mutegi! Mutegi!” A man yells over the heads of the people standing in front of him while pushing his way through the small crowd to get to the counter. He continues to shout over the noise of people talking. In his right hand is a white sheet of paper that looks like a letter. The only words visible from where I’m standing are those that form the letterhead of the law firm he clerks for.
“Hellen woiye si ucome tu kidogo,” (Please Hellen just come for a short bit). A young woman standing behind me, sighs in frustration, slightly bent as if looking through a peephole. She’s calling out to a woman with brown braided hair seated behind a desk. There are countless blue files placed on top of each other resting on the desk beside her right arm.
“Kama, si uniskize hata kidogo!” (Kama, why don’t you just listen to me for just a second?) A dark slender man with his short hair coiled into tiny green-gram shapes calls out to Kama (short for Kamau). His eyebrows are furrowed in slight annoyance from not being attended to.
Suddenly, a man barks, bringing the noise in the overcrowded room to a standstill. “Ni nini wewe?!” (What is your problem?!). “Si Stephen amesema niingie!” (Stephen has told me to get in!), he presses on. Everyone can see him through the glass wall counter as he argues with the security guard manning the door written in bold letters ‘STAFF ONLY’. “Usiniguse, umeskia!” (Don’t touch me, do you hear!) He threatens the guard who has refused to open the door for him. After a few seconds of back and forth, a fight ensues between the two.
This is just a peek into one of the stressful days young advocates endure while filing pleadings and taking court mention and/or hearing dates at the Milimani Chief Magistrates’ Court Civil Registry. A normal day in this registry is like a pressure cooker with the gas stuck on high. Voices on top of each other. Someone's cell phone ringing. Push and shove as a stench of sweat hangs in the air. Thirst, anxiety, desperation and exhaustion abound inside this room. There’s even a sentiment shared by many who’ve been here — “wendawazimu huanzia second floor” to mean insanity begins inside the room on second floor. For some of us writing, and a short evening rant on the phone with a friend, helps make the day bearable. Some pass by a nearby shop for a Panadol tablet for their throbbing headache while others, like Sheryl, break down into a sobbing mess in the public restrooms to help release the frustrations of the day.
As we stand in the long lines waiting to be served, after the stress spreads through our minds like ink on paper, most of us can’t help but wonder if a legal career is even worth it. Unlike the lies sold in newspapers and online survey studies, there’s only here. Being a young advocate working in a law firm in Kenya is more than the emotionally and mentally draining days at the Civil Registry. It is also about working under deplorable conditions characterised by monstrous workloads and thin timelines while being seriously under-rewarded.
As a result of being overworked we’re mentally locked into a perpetually acute state of stress yet we are expected to function at peak efficiency. So often the dividing line between work and personal life is blurred to the point that our interest in everything—family, friends, recreation and hobbies—is close to nonexistent. Our seniors are quick to perceive us through the lens of alcoholism, slow memory, cynicism, detachment, ineffectiveness, lack of accomplishment, higher fast food consumption and infrequent exercise without seeing how our choices are tied to the burnout we experience at work.
Highly reputable firms are rumored to be forcing young lawyers to work overtime without allowances or any form of rest afterwards. Most young advocates are paid as little as Kes. 10,000/= (£66) under the guise that we’re being given experience. Due to the expensive rent prices in Nairobi, we’re forced to live far away from town where we can afford to rent single rooms or bedsitter apartments that go for Kes. 5,000/= (£33) at least. Add that to the cost of basic necessities and outrageous fares, and a decent life is merely a fantasy to most young advocates living in Nairobi.
Getting underpaid at work isn’t just unfair, it’s unhealthy. Income directly affects a person’s engagement and productivity at work. While income is one of the several things affecting our engagement, it plays a large part. Refusing to accept the stipend offered is not an option because it means risking going for years without experience and being unable to afford basic necessities. However, these stunted wages also go a long way in sabotaging our career growth as future potential employers use that as a basis to rate our employability.
Being a young advocate in Nairobi also means being lower on the pecking order at work. We’re constantly subjected to derogatory comments, temper outbursts, intimidation and humiliation from our bosses. Law firms have also become dens for sexual predators constantly subjecting female advocates to sexual harassment and/or assault. Well-known male advocates have been accused of sexual harassment but due to their seniority and influence in the legal field, they have never been held accountable.
The television series Suits glamorises the life of young lawyers working in a modern corporate firm. Contrary to what you watch, the legal profession in Kenya is not about dressing impeccably in expensive designer suits and winning millions of money in dramatic cases. Neither are our lives colored by sunshine and excellence. What the Kenyan media doesn’t show you is the multiple medications—prescription and over-the-counter—we take just to get through the day. How we routinely function with a variety of aches and pains which stay even on the days when we are not working. We also experience poor sleep and anxiety, feelings of apathy and hopelessness and pessimism while often struggling to smile through depressive and suicidal episodes.
You know how romance has long been known for making us lose our minds? Yeah, for us, the legal career does that way before romance comes along.
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