It is no secret that the legal profession in Pakistan is nepotistic, where a surname usually outweighs merit; places in the legislature and executive are conferred down like some family heirloom; and young lawyers ‘inherit’ the law practices of their fathers and forefathers.
Add being a first-generation lawyer to the mix, and suddenly all odds are stacked against you. How does one navigate their way into a system so deeply entrenched in patronage?
The earliest, and perhaps the hardest challenge, arises at the point of entry. With elementary websites, redundant email addresses, and negligible social media presence, applying to a litigation firm as first-gen lawyer is a herculean task, and joining one is nothing short of a gamble.
My unyielding attitude and a relentlessly emailed well-crafted resume to several law firms secured me a position at a reputable law office. Unfortunately, my triumph quickly turned bitter. The terms of my employment stipulated a 48-hour work week spanning over six days, and a monthly compensation of Rs25,000. While I held my end of the bargain, the senior management of the said law office did not. I was not paid for the two months I worked there. Fortunately, I had the good sense to resign shortly thereafter, and especially when, the excuse “your salary cheque will be cleared soon” had become a tired and exploitative refrain.
Incidents like this not only shatter the confidence of first-gen lawyers but also serve as a testament to the exploitative environment, masked under false promises of security and success, misleading young lawyers and stunting their growth. While this phenomenon may extend to professions beyond law, it has become routine to expect junior lawyers, particularly in litigation, to radiate enthusiasm despite negligible, if any, monetary benefits. It's as if the introduction to law practice is framed as a favor rather than a bilateral contract of employment.
I recall interviewing for a law firm donning the name of an ex-justice of the Lahore High Court, and being told by one of the partners, “Who cares about money right? We’re sure you just want to learn”. It’s a question that has perplexed first-gen lawyers for decades. Why can’t one learn and earn simultaneously? To portray remuneration as mutually exclusive from learning is to be flippant towards the basic rights of first-generation lawyers.
Another formidable hurdle that takes months, if not years to overcome, is for first-gen lawyers to prove their skill-set beyond the origin of their law degree. The perception that they are only interested in bar politics and not adept in the English language, which is the lingua operandi in superior courts, is a challenge for graduates from public sector law schools. Alternatively, graduates with foreign law degrees are disfavoured for not being acquainted with the local laws and having subpar Urdu reading and writing skills which are imperative when corresponding with fora of first instances, such as magisterial courts, district courts and police stations.
Confronting preconceived biases, first-gen lawyers engage in an ongoing struggle to prove their worth. Conversely, some blithe ‘legacy lawyers’ openly flout bar council rules, and codes of conduct, benefiting from partisanship as they appear and argue in courts without the requisite licenses.
Now for the final challenge: networking. It is common practice in litigation as well as in transactional law, commonly known as corporate law, to restrict junior lawyers’ access to clients. At times, it is only with a didactic email to their aide, first-gen lawyers draft pleadings and conveyances, and advance preliminary arguments in courts, without ever receiving firsthand accounts of the matters from parties, only for the senior lawyers to take over at the evidence stage of the case, that is to conduct examination-in-chiefs and cross-examinations.
Recently, a paradigm shift of awareness has intrigued the country’s youth to apprise themselves of their rights, duties, interests, and obligations, thus welcoming more first-gen lawyers in the legal profession. Hence, it is high time that law firms on a grass-root level and bar councils on an institutional level introduce meritocratic policies to induct young lawyers into practice.
Bar Councils should also mandate law firms to establish departments of human resource to regulate their internal working conditions, such as publication of vacancies, issuance of employment contracts, granting annual leaves and appraisals, and employee reviews.
The purpose of highlighting the challenges of first-generation lawyers is neither to seek sympathy nor to launch an invective against the generational lawyers. In fact, it is a clarion call for equality and a level playing field, for opportunities to not be whispered into the ears of the privileged, for bright young minds to not be discriminated against simply because they dared to traverse a profession previously unchartered in their families.