Women as Lawyers - an Emphasis on the Egyptian Market

The Evolution of the Legal Practice
The concept of practising modern-day law has evolved significantly compared to when it was first established during ancient times. Nowadays, the legal profession is considered one of the world’s most prestigious vocations. 

In the pharaonic area, for example, disputing parties pleaded their cases directly before a governmental authority. However, due to the evolution of the pleading process, external parties began advising the disputing individuals on how to present their grievances. Sources indicate that around 2787 B.C., the first legal consultants were already offering advice to the disputing parties. (1)

Research reveals that, up until the Ottoman era, legal consultation and advocacy services were of an ad-hoc nature due to the lack of organization by a particular entity or specific rules of this practice. Subsequently, in 1292 AH/1876 AD, the first-ever legal organization in Islamic countries was incorporated when the system of attorneys for lawsuits was established. (2)

Afterwards, in 1884, the modern concept of the legal profession appeared in Egypt under the name of ‘Profession of Agents’. A regulation was issued to organize pleadings before the courts and the requirements to be amongst the Profession of Agents. The only prerequisite to carrying out the Profession of Agents was to possess a good reputation and to be eloquent. (3)

Practising Law Nowadays
In 1886, the school of law was established under the reign of Khedive Ismail, which then developed into a college of law inspired by the French system. Also, to practice the legal profession, holding a Bachelor of Laws from the college of law became mandatory. (4)

In modern times, the legal profession is governed by Law No. 17 of 1983 (the “Law”) and the rules are set out by the Egyptian Bar Association (the “Association”), which is the association of persons that carry out the legal profession in Egypt. The Association was established in 1912, making it one of the oldest associations in the Arab world.

According to the Law and the Association, to be able to practice the legal profession, one must be a licensed lawyer. In this context, the Law used the gender-neutral word for “lawyer” in Arabic. Hence, the legal profession is, in principle, accessible to both genders.

In addition, the Association affirms maintaining the principle of equality between men and women, a sacrosanct principle confirmed by the Egyptian Constitution. Therefore, the relevant conditions to join the Association and become a lawyer apply to men and women and are not gender-based.

These conditions are as follows:

  • To have graduated from an Egyptian law school (or to have obtained a certificate of receiving an equivalent law degree from the Higher Council of Universities in case of studying abroad);
  • To submit a recent criminal record extract;
  • Undertake a medical examination;
  • Submit a formal picture;
  • Provide a letter stating that the candidate is a trainee lawyer at one of the law firms in Egypt;
  • Payment of the fees;
  • To hold a high school certificate Thanawya Amma (Egyptian baccalaureate) or other equivalent degrees;
  • Provide a birth certificate;
  • Movement (travel) certificate;
  • For men, they need to provide a certificate on their military service status; and
  • Provide an insurance certificate.

As shown above, except for condition 10, all prerequisites apply to men and women, and both can become lawyers in Egypt as a constitutional right affirmed by the Law.

Having obtained a license to practice law in Egypt, the legal profession would offer myriad practice options, which also apply to women and men. For example, one can become a criminal law lawyer, tax lawyer, family law lawyer, corporate and commercial lawyer, mergers & acquisitions lawyer, banking and finance, dispute resolution lawyer, immigration lawyer, or divorce lawyerAlso, one can become an in-house lawyer or work at a law firm. However, for brevity, this article will focus on women as business lawyers.

Challenges of a Female Business Lawyer
The legal profession is undoubtedly challenging, and it is no secret that women worldwide struggle with certain obstacles because of their gender. Despite the developments to modernize our world, there remain areas of improvement in all sectors. While women can become astronauts, doctors, professors or soldiers, which was not the case a century ago, some professions are still male-dominated and, if accessed by women, struggle from the absence of equal opportunity.

This phenomenon seems particular in titles involving decision-making or those which reflect authority. The disparity is even worse in developing countries still affected by the cultural heritage that deems women inferior to men or not in a position to make vital decisions. On a different note, as previously mentioned, some people view that women by nature are not ‘prepared’ for a ‘tough’ job. Consequently, some places prefer to engage male lawyers. When female lawyers are involved, they could experience discrimination, such as gender wage gap and delayed promotions, despite being equal in their experience and title.

Within the realm of practising law, few women are represented as judges and lawyers. This is so because, in the eyes of some, women are emotional, lacking the firmness needed to carry out such a job, thus not being fit for a job requiring crucial decisions and ruling.

As a result, this overall perception has created several obstacles for women in the context of the legal profession. Though the Law does not technically discriminate against either gender when practising law, women are less likely permitted to practice law following their registration at the Association.

However, when women are given a fair opportunity, the results are not as society deems them to be. With so many women excelling, these are just a few of the most notable lawyers that have rightfully claimed their status in the market: Aisha Rateb, Mofida Abd El Rahman, Mona Zulficar, Nehad Abo El Komsan and the late Tahany El Gebaly.

Challenges of Being a Female Lawyer in the Middle East
In comparison to the West, the Middle East, in general, and Egypt, in particular, still have a long road ahead to reach the same participation level of females within the legal profession. However, on the bright side, Egypt is amongst the pioneers within the Arab region. It is often viewed as a role model due to its willingness and dedication to creating a more inclusive environment within the industry.

The United Arab Emirates (“UAE”) is amongst the leading countries in the Arab world, whose laws guarantee gender equality and prohibit discrimination in all aspects of life. In addition, the UAE ensures the right to practice the legal profession and assures equal salary payments for both genders. (5) In the UAE, females represent 28% of the total list of enrolled lawyers, equivalent to 998. (6)

However, the UAE’s neighbouring country, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (“KSA”), remains a male-dominated field. (7) Although there are no formal restrictions on women entering the profession, law firms in the KSA are reluctant to offer female lawyers a position. (8)

In Egypt, the challenges of being a female business lawyer seem primarily related to social and cultural constraints. For instance, a woman wearing a veil or “hijab” has been the subject of numerous controversial debates. On the one hand, some law firms that ‘conservative’ partners run tend not to hire a non-veiled lawyer. On the other hand, other law firms have an anti-veil policy emanating from the desire to be perceived as religion-neutral by their clients. In the same context, the attire of female lawyers raises further controversies as some places expect women to dress modestly as a means to earn other colleagues’ respect.

Based on Egypt’s current social structure, on average, men are seen as the household’s primary providers, while women tend to be perceived as having fewer financial responsibilities. Consequently, some employers offer higher salaries to male lawyers than their female counterparts. This conduct is undoubtedly discriminatory, considering salaries should be based on experience, rank, and contribution. However, there has been constant favouritism towards men to enable them to support their families. In contrast, this is not the case for women who are regarded as dependent on men and, accordingly, not in need of a job or even an adequate salary since they are presumably provided for. In some cases, female partners are paid less than male partners within the same firm.

The legal field’s highly competitive and equally demanding nature requires a lawyer to work long hours to maintain a competitive edge. However, the social structure expects women to be in charge of household and childcare duties simultaneously, thus making it difficult to achieve a work-life balance. Furthermore, in some instances, employers do not offer flexibility to accommodate the aforementioned factors. Consequently, women are at a crossroads, forcing them to choose between their job or a family, often choosing the latter. Moreover, some women may not have the luxury to choose between a family or career and are obligated to do both. As a result, these women may not achieve a complete sense of fulfilment. Also, in some cases, due to the standard family and cultural constraints imposed on women, working long hours is often deemed inappropriate. Consequently, once again, restricting women’s ability to be fully dedicated and diligent at their job, thus labelling them as ‘not working as hard’ as their colleagues.

Additionally, though pregnancy and maternity leave are legally protected characteristics, the stigma attached to both remains. This discrimination has several negative repercussions, including missed promotions, fewer pay raises, and projects being reassigned. Also, in some cases, many women claimed being treated differently upon their return, or even worse, being denied the right to resume their positions. As a consequence, some women are often discouraged from taking the full 12 week-leave, which they are legally allotted, due to the work-first culture and fear of being perceived as less committed to their jobs. Moreover, some employers could refuse to hire a newly married female lawyer out of worry that she could get pregnant and go on maternity leave.

Our Take
In conclusion, the above challenges are ever-present and are frequently experienced by female lawyers to varying degrees. However, these hurdles are not due to the ill-drafting of the law but rather a consequence of social and cultural norms.

Accordingly, reforming these obstacles would require examining and employing different tools and exercises, such as “conscious inclusion”. For the time being, we can only hope for such change to occur more rapidly as it would enhance public confidence and trust in the legal profession.

However, it is worth mentioning that, recently, decision-makers have been investing more time in implementing policies to help bring about change. For example, certain companies have begun offering employees more flexible working hours while keeping full-time benefits, thus allowing women to achieve a healthier and more sustainable work-life balance. Achieving this milestone resulted from increased cooperation, a willingness to accommodate employees’ needs, and, more importantly, providing women with more equal opportunities.

Currently, more emphasis is being put on employees’ leadership qualities; less so on gender. Recruiting employees with suitable skill sets and characteristics is vital to any successful company, irrespective of the industry it operates in. However, to foster a truly inclusive environment, a company should strive to account for the various difficulties employees may face, whether gender-based, socially, or culturally.


Nariman Roushdy
Senior Associate, Mergers & Acquisitions and Capital Markets

Farida Tawfik
Junior Associate, Corporate and Commercial

Nayera Hassan
Junior Associate, Mergers & Acquisitions and Capital Markets

To view the references, click on the attachment below.

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