Demystifying the myth: Shinning a clear path for entry of girls into the legal profession

Dr Balkisu Saidu
Faculty of Law, Usmanu Danfodiyo University, Sokoto
The zeitgeist[1] of our time is accommodative of a world where women contribute as much, if not more than, their male counterparts, in all spheres of endeavour including in the legal profession. Prior to 1935, when Stella Jane Thomas was enrolled at the Bar, the legal profession in Nigeria was the exclusivity of the males. Today, women are found in all areas of the legal profession: advocacy, adjudication, academia, etc.
The journey had not by any means been turmoil-free. There were times in the history of the quest for education of the girl-child, especially in the Northern part of Nigeria, when the socio-cultural patterns and religious misconceptions limited her access, retention and completion of even the basic part of conventional education. 
Those practices of bias and discrimination are now gradually paving the way for more access and choices for girls. 
Having overcome some of the worst hurdles in the path to education, in this piece, I make a case for the girl-child to consider law as a first choice in the determination of courses of study, but first, I address some of the challenges/myths that may stand in the path of a Northern girl wishing to pursue the study of law.
Myths and Real Challenge to the Study of Law
1.        REGALIA:      There is the misconception that it is part of the requirement of the legal profession for women to wear short skirts, tight jackets, and leave their hair uncovered. This is very much far from the truth. 
Certainly, the legal profession has its codes and ethics with regard to mode of dressing and appearance, but these codes and ethics are not at variance with the general culture of the people of the North.
The esoteric regalia of the lawyers in Nigeria traces its origin to the Legal Practitioners Ordinance No. 30 of 1915 (SAINT LUCIA), section 5 (1) of which provides that “Every barrister of the Royal Court shall have a right of audience in all the Courts of Justice in this Colony: Provided that counsel appearing before the Royal Court, or Court of Appeal, have no right of audience, unless they are clad in dark clothes and wear the robes and bands proper to their calling.”
This in no way advocates for immodest dressing. In fact, immodest dressing is abhorred in the legal profession. There are cases where female lawyers have been publicly admonished on the importance of maintaining the culture of decent dressing when appearing before a court of law. 
In a lecture delivered at the Judges Forum of the Nigerian Bar Association Annual General Conference in Port Harcourt (2011) on the topic “Mutual Respect between the Bench and the Bar: Courtroom Ethics and Decorum” Funke Adekoya, Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) advised female lawyers not to dress to the court “as if you are going to a night club.” The learned Silk likened such mode of dressing to act of disrespect to the court.
This position expressed is clearly enshrined in the Rules of Professional Conduct for Legal Practitioners 2007. Article 36 thereof provides that a lawyer appearing before the court shall “(a) be attired in a proper and dignified manner and shall not wear any apparel or ornament calculated to attract attention to himself; (b) conduct himself with decency and decorum, and observe the customs, conduct and code of behaviour of the court and custom of practice at the bar with respect to appearance, dress, manners and courtesy.”
It is also part of the dress code, right from Law School that ladies are strictly prohibited from wearing trousers and their skirts must, under no circumstance, be above the knees. Skull caps and cape hijabs are now a frequent sighting in courtrooms. Even in superior courts where wigs are part of the compulsory regalia of lawyers, Muslim women do wear skull caps or cape hijabs beneath their wigs. 
In spite of the secular stance of the country as adopted in section 10 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999, as amended, the pluralistic religious nature of Nigeria has indeed been recognised and respected by the legal profession. In some campuses of the Law School, students go to classes clad in full length hijabs.
2.        COST:            Some States in the North, such as Sokoto State, pay the registration fees for indigenes of the States at both undergraduate and Law School levels. At postgraduate level, there are scholarship and grant opportunities available to both male and female students of law from international organisations. These include United Nations International Law Fellowship Programme, King’s Nigerian Law Scholar Fund for Masters Students, Global Leaders Fellowship for Nigerian Students, Chevening Scholarship, and Monbukagakusho (MEXT) Scholarship, among others. The writer benefited from the last two mentioned scholarships in the United Kingdom and Japan. You or your parents do not have to carry the entire burden of your training.
3.        LENGHT OF PERIOD OF STUDY: This is a very real challenge to some girls, particularly those from the North. The study of law in Nigerian Universities takes four (4) to five (5) years depending on the point of entry (UG I or UG II – JAMB or Direct Entry). Upon the completion of the undergraduate training, candidates are required to undergo one (1) year training in the Nigerian Law School in order to qualify for call to the Nigerian Bar.
 It is only after the successful completion of this 5 or six (6) year training that one could qualify as a lawyer. Considering that the earliest age one could gain admission into a Nigerian University is sixteen (16) years, according to the Joint Admissions and Matriculations Board (JAMB), which specifies that a candidate for admission into any undergraduate programme of a Nigerian University must have attained the age of 16 or will do so on the first day of October in the year of candidature, this is a real challenge. It takes any girl wishing to qualify as a lawyer before marriage into her early twenties before such qualification; an arrangement many parents in the North do not support.
In recent years, girls have succeeded in successfully combining the responsibilities of matrimony with those of pursuit of education. If you happen to get married before completion of your training, that should not be a barrier to your success in the study of law. Some of us waded through that hurdle.
 Why Study Law in the midst of Range of Disciplines?
Law is one discipline that cuts across all other disciplines. All! When you study law, you get an insight into a whole range of disciplines. 

Law affects everything. The study of law opens up your mind to wide-ranging possibilities in the study of medicine and other sciences in tort law, copyright law in literature, economics in treaties and law of contract, geo-politics in international law, and sociology in family law, among others.
Law guides your development of a range of skills. It challenges you to sharpen your intellect, strengthen your understanding and deepen your appreciation of other courses in humanities and social sciences. When you study law, you develop your ability for abstract thinking and methods of practical problem-solving. 
These skills are acquired through diverse methods of creative intellectual teaching and learning process: Socratic Method (method of elenchus) of debate and articulation, tutorials, moot court competitions, where skills are developed in analytical thinking and oral presentations, etc. Law Clinics offer additional training ground for students to, through the provision of pro bono services, give legal advice and support to real people with real problems.
When you train in law, you stand a better chance of reaching the highest echelon of your career. Even with the patriarchal outlook of Northern Nigeria, women of Northern extraction have occupied some of the highest positions in the legal profession. This may not be unconnected with the fact that there are no women in law.
 Once you are able to overcome the rigours of the training and you are called to the Bar, your gender ‘disappears.’ Some of these Northern women who excelled as lawyers include the immediate past Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Aloma Mariam Mukhtar (2012-2014) who is an indigene of Kano State; the current President of the Court of Appeal (PCA), Justice Zainab Bulkachuwa who hails from Gombe State; the immediate past Chief Judge of Kaduna State, Justice Rahila Hadea Cudjoe; and the current Chief Judge of Sokoto State, Justice Aisha Sani Dahiru.
Others are the Chief Judge of Niger State, Justice Fati Abubakar; and the Acting Chief Judge of Kano State, Justice Patricia Mahmoud. In the academia, Northern women are also well represented. For example, the famous Professor Hauwa Ibrahim of Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States of America, hails from Gombe State.
Aside from careers in the legal profession, you stand a favourable chance of being considered for positions that require analytic thinking in Law Enforcement, Academia, International Organisations and the business world. Moreover, there are certain jobs that have, by law, been made to be the exclusive reserve of persons in the legal profession, for example, the position of Registrar-General of Corporate Affairs Commission, and, along with other professionals, the position of a Secretary in a Public Company. In addition, every lawyer in Nigeria is qualified as Solicitor and Advocate. 
Even if your plan is not to pursue a career as an advocate or a Judge, you can still make a living from being a Solicitor. In a society with very limited social welfare schemes and social safety nets, this angle of the profession could provide you with income even after retirement from formal employment.
You also stand a very good chance, by your training, of being a mediator or an arbitrator. This usually comes to women naturally! As a daughter, as a sister, as a wife, as a mother, you are always settling disputes. Apart from your natural disposition of empathy, the skills you acquire from your training of law prepare you for such calling.
From the foregoing, you could see that there are numerous advantages in the study of law. As girls and women, we have come a long way, but there are still some obscure challenges lurking in the path of the development of girl-child. 
The sure way to confront and overcome them is to acquire the skills and qualifications that will afford you the right of hearing before every court in Nigeria to advocate for causes that matter to you and bring about justice in your society. Remember, even the figure of justice is represented by the female statue, “Lady Justice.” Study law and qualify as a lawyer, you will be glad you did.

[1] the defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history as shown by the ideas and beliefs of the time.

The British Council requested for the publication of this article as part of celebration of the International Day of the Girl Child.