Fair law: How do we empower more women in legal practice?

Data indicates that the country needs more than just infrastructure if we are to empower more women in the legal field.
Women in legal profession
Women in legal profession

Countless studies have extolled the benefits of women empowerment and gender disparity in the legal field. In India too, the contemporary discourse has found ample mention of women empowerment and gender disparity.

At the start of the year, Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud emphasised on the need to create dignified working conditions for women. Data indicates that the country needs more than just infrastructure if we are to empower more women in the legal field.

A century ago, a court ruling reversed the ban on women practicing law in India. As of 1923, women were barred from practicing law, but the passage of the Legal Practitioners (Women) Act helped women gain a foothold in the profession. However, a hundred years later, on-ground statistics are far from encouraging. Parliamentary data presented in 2023 by then Union Law Minister Kiren Rijiju showed a wide gap between men and women, not only in terms of judges, but also practicing lawyers. The Bar Council of India’s data from 15 states found that barely 15.31% of practicing advocates were women.

While the numbers indicate the need to adopt women-centric policies, there has been a healthy influx of student participation in the legal arena. There has been a healthy increase in girls appearing in the Common Law Admission Test (CLAT). In 2011, the girl participation rate stood at 32%, while for CLAT 2022, 56% were females. While statistics on the ground-level spur optimism, there is a concern with more women quitting the profession once they reach the middle-level. The reality is eerily similar to The Trial, a legal drama series starring Kajol. An adaptation of The Good Wife, this show reveals some startling trends including how the protagonist, a woman, dropped off from a viable profession and how she resumes it only after her husband gets imprisoned.

Beyond gender stereotypes

Despite its popularity, the show depicts the protagonist handling stereotypical kinds of cases. A similar trend has been observed in the India’s legal profession. Women in law have often been pigeon-holed into handling cases around family and divorce laws. This sidelines their potential to excel in corporate, criminal and other legal domains. To truly empower women in legal practice, the ecosystem must move evolve beyond this stereotypical treatment and recognise diverse capabilities and functions where female legal professionals can excel.

Statistics show a growth of women entrepreneurs and business leaders in India. The limited availability of legal firms in the entrepreneurship segment further limits the service-providers who could cater to the needs of women entrepreneurs. According to the Sixth Economic Census by the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, women constituted nearly 13.76% of the total entrepreneurs in India, managing over 8.05 million establishments. These women need robust legal support to navigate complex business regulations, intellectual property rights, mergers and acquisitions, and compliance issues.

New-age legal advisory roles

Traditional legal services have often overlooked the specific challenges faced by women in business, such as navigating gender biases, accessing funding, and balancing professional and personal responsibilities. A new-age legal advisory firm could be one that is designed to provide personalised legal guidance, catering specifically to women entrepreneurs.

Statistics from the most recent National Family Health Survey have pointed out that in India, women depend upon their husbands for legal and financial advice. In addition to this, as per an International Finance Corporation (IFC) study, nearly 70% of women-led small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in developing countries, including India, experience financial constraints due to lack of access to legal resources. Now, modern legal services could be crucial from the perspective of offering tailored advice. This could enable more women to navigate complex legal and financial landscapes. By addressing these gaps, new-age legal advisory businesses empower women entrepreneurs to make informed decisions and confidently pursue business opportunities.

A significant aspect of these services is their focus on personalised guidance. Unlike conventional legal firms, these advisory businesses provide a more nuanced approach, taking into account the unique circumstances and goals of each woman entrepreneur. This includes helping them understand and comply with regulatory requirements, secure intellectual property rights, and navigate legal hurdles that are often more daunting for women due to societal expectations and gender biases.

The legal advisory market for women entrepreneurs is poised for significant expansion. As more women venture into entrepreneurship, the need for specialised legal services that understand and address their specific challenges becomes increasingly important. Women entrepreneurs face distinct legal hurdles, including discriminatory practices, gender-based biases in financial dealings, and additional scrutiny in compliance matters.

In conclusion, the emergence of new-age legal advisory businesses tailored for women entrepreneurs signifies a critical advancement in the legal landscape. By providing personalised, independent legal guidance, these firms empower women to overcome traditional barriers and thrive in their entrepreneurial endeavors. As this market continues to grow, it presents a substantial opportunity for legal professionals to support and benefit from the rising wave of women-led enterprises in India.

Akshat Khetan is a corporate and legal advisor. You can follow him on Twitter @akshat_khetan

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