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Junior lawyers cry foul over exploitation by their seniors

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Law Development Centre (LDC) students celebrate during their graduation ceremony at their campus in Makerere recently. PHOTO | FILE

Young lawyers recently took their dissatisfaction against exploitation by their bosses to social media particularly on X, formerly Twitter demanding change.

The angry young lawyers have since opened up a campaign dubbed 'exhibitions', through which they intend to expose the unjust working conditions subjected to them.

Being hired without any form of contract, not providing them with transport facilitation, and sexual harassment, especially to the female lawyers, are some of the grievances that young lawyers are raising.

Mr Tonny Tumukunde with Tumukunde & Company Advocates says most young lawyers are not paid any salaries for their hard work neither lunch nor transport allowance.

“They (young lawyers) are meant to walk from their homes to the law firms to carry out instructions of their seniors,”

“If you are lucky, you will be paid workspace, Wifi, stationery, and experience,” he says.

Further, Mr Tumukunde, says as young lawyers, the Law Society benefits from them a lot since they are the biggest constituency when it comes to elections.

He further claimed some of his colleagues are paid far less wages than the firm’s cleaners and drivers with the biggest number being paid in the range of USD90 (about Shs300,000).

“The senior lawyers should understand that times have changed. They may have been paid Shs200,000 during their days but over time, money has since lost value.”Mr Tumukunde avers.

On sexual harassment, Mr Tumukunde says his female counterparts are suffering silently.

He claims some law firms are known for hiring only beautiful young female lawyers fresh from university and are sexually taken advantage of by their seniors.

"The sexual harassment of female lawyers is terrible. We have law firms in Kampala known for hiring beautiful young lawyers, they move with their senior bosses to each meeting, and at the end of the month, they are not paid but instead are sexually harassed.  Some law firms ask the young lawyers to dress and smell well yet they are paying you peanuts." Mr Tumukunde avers.

Mr Tumukunde called upon the Uganda Law Society to pass an ordinance that restricts any lawyer from working without a contract. He also cautioned senior lawyers to acknowledge that times have changed and so has the value of money. He added that if senior lawyers were being paid Shs200,000 in 2000, they should appreciate that it is so low to use as a payment standard in 2024.

Another aggrieved lawyer Gard Wakubona Makuyi, who has worked as a clerk before upgrading to a young lawyer, says whereas the senior lawyers know the employment law properly, they deliberately operate in a manner that has led to their exploitation.

"We have junior lawyers who are qualified to work as advocates and true they hold all the qualifications but they work under the favour of the senior counsel without any contract of employment which makes them more of casual labourers with high chances of being fired any day and any time,” counsel Makuyi says.

“Most of the junior lawyers are paid very little or not paid at all while others only get lunch and a weekly transport allowance of shs50,000." Mr Makuyi added.

The senior lawyers are accused of taking credit for the work done by their employees without acknowledging their contribution which leaves them burned out, and demotivated and also exposes them to mental health challenges.

Likewise, Mr Alfred Muyaaka, recalls how he was paid Shs100,000 as a salary when he worked as a clerk in Jinja and that he will survive on his own by charging clients for his transport to court.

He explains that for a lawyer to get a practising certificate, he or she must first be enrolled as an advocate of the High Court.

“…However, after graduation from Law Development Centre, lawyers take roughly two years before being enrolled as advocates, hence opening up this window of exploitation by senior lawyers." Mr Muyaaka says.

Adding: “Young lawyers are as well exploited in the name of giving them exposure. To remedy this, Law students ought to find ways of getting exposed as soon as their year one at Law school or year two. They should seek internship placements in law firms, legal departments, and Courts among others."

He said that with such a mentality, by the end of the total 5 years in Law School, young lawyers would be fairly exposed to figure out their career path instead of being exploited in the name of giving them exposure.

But reacting to these complaints, Dr. Joyce Nalunga Birimumaasaso, the president of the Female Lawyers Network told this publication that there's indeed a high rate of sexual harassment against female lawyers by their male bosses.

She termed the same as “a very sad” thing to happen to any member of the legal fraternity.

Dr Nalunga recommended that there should be regular sensitization and awareness of sexual harassment in legal practice and also urged that law spaces should adopt anti-sexual harassment strategies and policies.

Additionally, she said that the Advocates Act (professional conduct & ethical) Regulations, a legal instrument that guides advocates on how to conduct themselves during the layering career should be amended to penalize sexual harassment.

The president of the Uganda Law Society, a professional association for all advocates, Mr Bernard Oundo yesterday said: “We are concerned about the challenges the young lawyers are facing and we will table it at one of our next meetings so that we can comprehensively discuss it with other members. We will hopefully find a solution.”

Weighing in, former president of the Law Society, Ms Pheona Wall said we live in a capitalist economy where forces of demand and supply are at play and there are few law firms compared to the lawyers fresh from university.

“The biggest challenge we are facing today is that many lawyers lack the bargaining power, many do not have practising certificates, which puts them at the end of exploitation by their bosses,” she said.

Regarding sexual harassment, it is true that there is sexual harassment in the legal fraternity as is in other professions.

“Sexual harassment is a social issue rather not a professional issue. I usually encourage victims not to keep quiet because concealing the vice starts with victims keeping quiet. I think the Robinah Rwakoojo report (on sexual harassment) report would have been good to tackle this problem where sexual perpetrators would have been identified and published but unfortunately, it did not succeed,”  she avers.

The virtual contest between the young lawyers and senior lawyers has been justified by a section of senior lawyers who attribute their actions to the performance of the firms.

They say that sometimes the firm struggles to raise enough income that the bosses suffer as much as the young lawyers but they never get to understand this.

Some arguments from the senior lawyers diluted the claims of the young lawyers and accused them of self-entitlement whose worthiness of big payment should be justified by their contribution to the growth of the law firm. They say that a large number of young lawyers are not competent enough to claim big salaries.

To become a lawyer, one has to attend any accredited law school in Uganda and apparently, 14 accredited law schools offer a law degree.

After successfully passing at the undergraduate level, they apply to the Law Development Centre to attain a postgraduate diploma in legal practice. Afterwards, they enrol to become advocates of the High Court and become junior lawyers.

It takes 10 to 15 years of legal practice to become senior lawyers.