It is important that a profession which, for others, seeks to ensure equality before the law, seriously considers and take into account equality as to the availability of opportunities amongst individuals who are practicing it.
Unlevel Playing Field
In Pakistan, the majority of lawyers – advocates as they are called− struggle to make their ends meet. The primary reason is that they belong to lower income backgrounds which in turn influence the choice of a law school, ultimately resulting in a lack of opportunities and personal growth. The law school one studied at, is now widely being seen as determinant of the graduate’s career trajectory. Yet, choosing a law school itself depends upon cost, proximity, values and other similar factors. Nevertheless, it is somehow beginning to affect the ways one is seen in a profession by professionals.
The otherwise competent first-generation law students belonging to less privileged social backgrounds are unable to add any significant value in their lives in terms of financial stability after years of completing their law degrees. It is happening even when they have made their way to universities by breaking all socio-economic constraints in a country like Pakistan where GDP per capita income remained 1193.7 USD in 2020. Additionally, the submission of fees even of public law colleges put a hole in pockets. The period of six-month mandatory training under a senior advocate after completing law and passing Law GAT is especially challenging for such incoming lawyers as they are given minimal to no sum of money as stipend. The kind of work experience one may get during their training, again, hugely depends upon their background. Moreover, fresh law graduates with no influential links are put off by the discouraging attitude of seniors. As such, the disheartening work environment, financial insecurity and non-availability of hands-on experience over legal issues inhibit the intellectual potential of young minds and force them to take up activities that serve no good.
Majority of law graduates from humble backgrounds, unable to secure any good place or training opportunity in prime years of their careers are drawn to bar politics. This is in the hopes of making ‘connections’ with the future cabinet of the district or provincial bar associations. Whereas law graduates from affluent backgrounds, connection and career wise, enjoy a relatively encouraging position in the profession. The former, with no relief in sight, see rigorous campaigning for elections of future bar leaders as the only way to secure a place within the profession. In their struggles to be seen as ‘someone’, the most decisive time of their lives is then further wasted because of misdirection. They are put to more disadvantaged positions in life with no realization of the necessity to polish their legal skills in the highly competitive legal industry. The result is the deepening divide among the already privileged and non-privileged.
The privileged in the profession, needless to mention, manage to grab good work experience, are given opportunities in reputable law firms, get better chances at making connections, enjoy good social mobility, and finer career prospects. These are mostly the ones who have attended an elite private law school in Pakistan where fees for one semester is structured around lacs. They have means to enroll in external law programs or are in a financial position to travel and study abroad for under or post graduate law degree. Some of them have a sound social and financial background, with their own established chambers.
Deepening the Privileged vs. Non-privileged Divide
Graduates from elite private universities in Pakistan or foreign law schools are looked upon favorably for various reasons by many, including teachers of top public universities. It is disturbing to find out that most foreign graduates are given preference over local graduates, when in reality they are no better than the latter. The fact they are given importance for attending a foreign institute that gives credibility to the firm or law school hiring them is disheartening and worrisome. Detached from on the ground realities, it speaks volumes about the inferiority complex the once colonial system is still struggling with.
The colonist mindset thus, contrary to our beliefs, is widely gaining permanence and threating the valued concept of inclusiveness in the legal field more than ever. For instance, a teacher at one of the best public legal institutions in Pakistan which stands tall as the alma mater of many great personalities, once mocked the students in the classroom by comparing their status with students of an elite private law school.
‘Had you been rich you would have gone to ‘that’ school and would not be here!’,
At another time, a teacher who is a foreign law graduate from a notable family singled a boy out from class and asked him to read a passage from the book. Unable to read as fluently as the teacher had wished, the boy was asked to stop reading and was questioned in an insulting tone, ‘Are you going to appear in competitive exams?’ in a room full of students with different backgrounds and universities.
The disparaging remarks from seniors and mentors about students’ abilities for not knowing, behaving or speaking in a certain way have become the norm. Despite being socially aware of the backgrounds different individuals come from, and lack of equal quality access to opportunities; this behavior indicates our lack of commitment towards making this profession appear inviting and inclusive. We are still not ready to acknowledge and rectify the problems our society is encountering. This demeaning attitude in no way contributes to the welfare of the profession but is actually stunting the potential growth of a great work force we are knowingly leaving behind. All because of our narrow world view and toxic elitist mindset.
As stated earlier, social class or models structured around social stratification is not the only alienating reason behind the problems faced by young lawyers. The complete apathy of senior leadership and the policy makers towards the future of incoming lawyers is also problematic.
As per the Punjab Bar Council’s official website, there are more than 100000 enrolled advocates in Punjab. Some lawyers proposing reforms in the legal profession find huge number of advocate enrolments questionable and are of the view that law schools should limit the intake of students. But for a country like Pakistan with low literacy rates and almost no opportunities for the youth, will this decision not substantially enable the privileged even more?