Asmahaney: Don't try to be who you aren't

Lawyer Asmahaney Saad at her office in Kampala during an interview on February 19, 2024. PHOTO/ISAAC KASAMANI

What you need to know:

  • Asmahaney Saad, a lawyer by profession, is a partner and Head of the Corporate, Commercial, and Projects Department at KTA Advocates.
  • She speaks to Esther Oluka about her work and everything else about the profession.

You are an advocate, a committee member on the first ever appointed Investment Advisory Committee (IAC) that advises the finance minister and serve as a non-executive director to the Board of United Bank for Africa (Uganda) Ltd. How do you juggle all these responsibilities?

I am indeed a woman who wears different hats, the other two being a wife and mother of three children aged 12, 10, and eight years. 

Before, I used to get scared of taking on many responsibilities but later on learned that I had a gift of multi-tasking, something I can do with ease. 

But even with multi-tasking, one has to be very organised and always switched on to focus on a particular task. However, where you see me in every role, I have support. Here at the firm, I have a great team I work with. 

So, my role is to lead, using my expertise to guide on issues that need expert knowledge, and then giving direction and strategy. 

At home, the support from family has also been very profound, especially from my husband.  

What has your experience been like as a female lawyer?
It has not been easy, honestly. Things are tough for women right from law school when doing a degree. 

I remember during our year’s intake at the Faculty of Law Makerere University, we were about 400 students, with a small percentage being female. 

The majority of girls had ventured into social sciences, education, arts and you would wonder if you were doing the right course. The Law Development Centre (LDC) was tougher. Some of our [female] colleagues got married, had babies and because of the intense nature of the course, they dropped off. 

And for those who finish and get into the market, they find other sets of challenges among others navigating around different elements of uncalled-for advances, harassment, and lack of mentorship. 
Additionally, there has also been the issue of rejection, and denied opportunities, simply because I am a woman or look a certain way.

Marginalised as a woman you say?
On yes. I have been marginalised a lot as a woman during my career. I remember one time we had a meeting with Bank of Uganda, as Board of Directors. 

I met someone who was also a board member in another bank. When they saw me, they assumed I was the company secretary. 

In their mind, they must have been thinking that there was no way I could be present in the meeting in a much bigger capacity. 

And when I eventually informed him that I was there in the capacity of board member, he responded with all sorts of utterances saying, “Oh really!”, “When [did this happen]?” 

He mumbled all sorts of come-back questions. There is also the racial profiling. Sometimes however painful, one simply chooses to ignore these things. 

I have therefore had to push myself to get to where I am today through hard work, putting myself out there, and seizing opportunities. With law, you need to have a fighting spirit, literally, to succeed.

Having a profession in law can be a lot. How have you managed to hold yourself together and succeed at the same time?
Yes, it a lot, but I always tell people that they should specialise in a specific field. I love commercial law and that is my focus. 

You won’t find me doing criminal or family law. But like previously stated, I also have tonnes of support from both work and home.

What from your experience affects women a lot in the cases you have worked on?
It has majorly been issues surrounding property and succession. 

So, women, in whatever facet they come in, whether they are widows, beneficiaries to an estate, or divorced, are always facing challenges surrounding property. 

I would advise women to embrace knowledge surrounding property and the law. Before getting married, for example, why not talk about the dynamics surrounding marriage and property? It is an uncomfortable discussion but one likely to save you a lot of trouble in the end. 

Even if you are a housewife and your husband is purchasing property, find a way of having that conversation with him. Ask questions.

What are some leadership challenges you have seen that are unique to women?
The fact that one is a woman is already a leadership challenge. You walk into a room and are presented as a female leader, which sometimes changes the mood in a room. 

There are moments when people immediately become disinterested in listening or giving you attention. I advise women to always be authentic, and be themselves, no matter what. 

Do not try to be someone you are not. It is not worth it. Let them take you the way you are. 
I have also noticed that sometimes when women try to push others to achieve, they may get perceived wrongly, including being labelled as assertive. To counteract such narratives, some women have been forced to hold back. 

I would advise women to always be authentic, and be themselves, no matter what. Do not try to be someone you are not. It is not consistent.

How do you handle conflict at work?
Since conflicts always have a source, it is important to understand its source. Was the issue coming from a miscommunication? 

Misunderstanding? There is always a mis-somewhere that can always be corrected rather than avoid the whole problem altogether.  

What about empowering women at work?
For the staff, we have more female staff than the men. At the top level, I work alongside five men. 
This is however something we are figuring out and want to change by making plans to bring more women on board including mentoring staff so that they can become partners.

What is your advice to women aspiring to become lawyers?
Join the profession! Law is about you supporting others. We are also like life-givers.

On the other side...
What is a typical day like for you?

I am usually up by either 4.45am or 5am and have an hour to myself. I will read the Bible before praying and meditating. I will then proceed to do my early morning workout. From there I will prepare myself before venturing into the day to work which includes attending meetings. While at home in the evenings, I love spending time with my children.

Talking or texting
I love talking. A lot can be lost in translation during texting.

Trait you value most in your circle of friends.

Questions you hate answering about yourself.
Where are you from? Are you a Ugandan? It is like always being profiled.

Three women who inspire you.
My mother is among them. She is an overcomer of many things. But also, she always advised me to hold on to my dreams, never to give up on them.

The others are former Vice President Specioza Wandira Kazibwe. I remember during my primary school years, I always had an ambition of being a vice president, so, when she made it as the first female Ugandan one, I was so delighted and felt that she was living my dream.

Such an accomplishment was such an eye-opener that a woman can achieve anything. Then Oprah Winfrey because of her rags-to-riches story and her consistent commitment to empowering girls.