The perils of a junior lawyer

Graduands during a graduation ceremony at Makerere University. Junior lawyers have accused their seniors of exploiting them. Photo/Fiile

What you need to know:

  • The lawyers accused their seniors of hiring them without contracts, not providing them with transport assistance, and sexual harassment, among others.

Many lawyers dream of landing a job after graduating from law school. 

According to the lawyers, established firms offer better salaries and extensive career opportunities. 

Mr Tonny Tumukunde, a lawyer, says he was looking forward to “not high but relatively good pay, work with certainty by having an employment contract, and continuous training” when he completed his studies.

But for many junior lawyers, the reality is completely different from the dream. 

“We (junior lawyers) are meant to walk from our homes to the law firms to carry out instructions of our seniors. Most of the young lawyers are not paid any salary for their hard work, no lunch or transport allowance,” he says.

“If you are lucky, you will be paid workspace, Wifi, stationery, and experience [allowances],” he adds.

Recently, some of the junior lawyers took to X (formerly Twitter) and expressed their dissatisfaction, saying they were being exploited by their bosses.

The lawyers accused their seniors of hiring them without contracts, not providing them with transport assistance, and sexual harassment, among others.

According to Mr Tumukunde, some of his colleagues are paid far less than the firm’s cleaners and drivers. He says the majority are paid about $90 (Shs338,000).

“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 says.

“The sexual harassment of female lawyers is terrible. We have law firms in Kampala known for hiring beautiful young lawyers, who move with their senior bosses to each meeting, and at the end of the month, they are not paid but instead are sexually harassed,” he adds.

Mr Gard Wakubona Makuyi, another lawyer, says whereas the senior lawyers are well versed with the employment law, they deliberately operate in a manner that has led to the exploitation of their junior counterparts.

“We have junior lawyers who are qualified to work as advocates and [have] all the qualifications [required] 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,” Mr 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 adds.

He says senior lawyers take credit for the work done by their employees without acknowledging their contribution, which demotivates and exposes them to mental health challenges.

Another lawyer, Mr Alfred Muyaaka, says 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.

He adds: “Young lawyers are exploited in the name of giving them exposure. To remedy this, students ought to find ways of getting exposed [in the first year] at Law school, latest year two. They should seek internship placements in law firms, legal departments, and courts, among others.”

Dr Joyce Nalunga Birimumaasaso, the president of the Female Lawyers Network, says there is indeed a high rate of sexual harassment against female lawyers by their male bosses.

Dr Nalunga says there should be regular sensitisation and awareness of sexual harassment in the legal practice and called for the adoption of anti-sexual harassment strategies and policies in “legal spaces”.

She adds that the Advocates Act (professional conduct and ethical) Regulations, a legal instrument that guides advocates on how to conduct themselves during the lawyering career, should be amended to penalise sexual harassment.

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

The former president of the Uganda Law Society, Ms Pheona Nabasa 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 risk of exploitation by their bosses,” she says. 

Regarding sexual harassment, Ms Nabasa says: “Sexual harassment is a social issue, not a professional issue. I usually encourage victims not to keep quiet because concealing the vice starts with victims keeping quiet.” 

A section of senior lawyers blame the issue on the poor economic performance of the firms.  They say sometimes the firms struggle to raise enough income to pay salaries, rent, and allowances. 

What others say
“I really don’t have information and facts about the issue. How many lawyers are affected? If it is true that the younger lawyers think they are exploited, they can first sign contracts with employers to spell out clearly the terms of service including what they earn, which can be a percentage commission per case handled or monthly salary. Whatever they append their signature, the employers are obliged to respect the commitments. If violated like any other employee, they can seek redress in the labour courts, or even complain before the Uganda Law Council,” Dr Sylvia Namubiru Mukasa, CEO of LASPNET

“The truth is that the working conditions of the law firms are not well-regulated. Law firms are operating like kiosks where the bosses do as they wish. There needs to be enforcement of labour laws in the legal practice where young lawyers must have contracts as they execute their roles at the firms. The regulatory body needs to enforce strict adherence to statutory obligations like paying PAYE, and NSSF emoluments and also ensure that law firms provide good working conditions for their staff. The law firms are more powerful than the Law Council, their regulator. The Law Council is understaffed, lacks resources, and has very slow operations, among others,” Mr Nicolas Opiyo, human rights lawyer

“I think as senior counsel in a law firm, you need to treat your team right. We are competing in a talent market where you retain the best lawyers; if you don’t treat them right; then they will be taken by another competing firm in the market. So it is a strategy we have adopted as a firm and should be employed in different competing sectors,” Mr Timothy K Masembe, senior partner at MMAKS Advocates

“The phenomenon of a legal practice as a professional business with contracts for workers for example is new and very small essentially because Uganda is a small economy and the general economic situation in the country is poor. Therefore, the industry is still learning. Lawyers in Uganda are trained to do lawyering but not to run law firms as a business. Only a few lawyers or firms even earn enough or such regular incomes to be able to formally employ people on a guaranteed monthly payment with benefits etc. The economy is very bad and the firms do not have money to pay their staff as much as they ask for,” Mr John Musiime, partner at Dentons 

“How do you weigh exploitation? A person should be paid according to their contribution to the thriving of the firm. What do you bring to the table to justify your payment demands? The problem with this generation of young lawyers is the inability to learn. Legal practice and academic excellence are two different things. One should be able to learn and perhaps start a law firm to start earning the payments they demand. It is important to note that we have a very poor economy.” Mr Simon Peter Kinobe, former Law Society president and partner at Ortus Advocates.