The dynamics of the legal profession have undergone an evolution over the past few years with the rise and influence of women. However, while women outnumber their male counterparts when it comes to graduating in law, fewer of them are staying in practice.
This was one of the observations made by celebrated lawyer Belinda Mapongwana, founder of Mapongwana Attorneys, who was a guest recently in a webinar titled: “Shaping the future: Law’s Progressive Turn”. The event was hosted by LexisNexis, a company that provides international legal research solutions.
Mapongwana is involved in a project with the University of Johannesburg called the Co-Impact Gender Fund which aims to implement institutional change in the legal profession in South Africa, and said the analysis around the statistics was fascinating.
“There are a lot of females going into universities and leaving academic institutions with LLBs compared to males. They (the women) are not staying in practice because the environment is not conducive for women who want to reach a certain level within law firms. We don’t have a lot of women who are in senior positions to make decisions from a female perspective, and that is the difficulty,” she said, adding that the environment isn’t changing fast enough to accommodate the changes happening in society.
To change that culture, Mapongwana said it was important to form partnerships in a cut throat industry.
“It is important that we bring the men along with us. The reason there are more men in law firms is they don’t have the responsibility of having to go on maternity leave and raising children. The saying ‘out of sight is out of mind’ cuts deep for a woman who has just got married or just had a child and is no longer able to take on lucrative transactions. We all know in law firms that you sell your value by bringing in the transactions, doing the work and monetizing that. Meeting your budget determines your partnership track and how you rise to become a senior person within the law firm. So you have to partner with the men, and women need to speak up,” she said.
Corporate adversity can be challenging, noted Mapongwana, but identifying mentors and sponsors is key to overcoming this.
“A mentor will guide you. A sponsor is that person who will stay in a room when people are deciding whether you deserve that promotion or whether you need to be part of a team that is working on a lucrative transaction, and is the person who will put their head on the block for you. So you need a network around you; you can't do it alone,” Mapongwana emphasised.
She encouraged women to always ensure that their work was excellent.
“As soon as you prove yourself to be excellent, even the people who doubted you have got no choice but to believe you. But it always comes from within: self-belief, confidence and from being focused on what it is that you want for yourself. You will find that even the initial naysayer starts to support you because excellence transcends all prejudices and stereotypes,” said Mapongwana.
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