Investment prospects are improving in southern state of Kerala, but are local law firms rising to the challenge of providing the sophisticated services that investors demand?

In September, the twin cities of Kochi and Ernakulum, the commercial heart of Kerala, played host to around 2,000 delegates attending a three-day conference called Emerging Kerala, aimed at wooing investors. Addressing the much publicized event, the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, spoke of the need to build “an enabling environment” for investment.

Kerala has a dismal record of attracting investments even though it has some of the highest human development indicators in India and receives about 30% of its GDP as remittances from Keralites working overseas. The state attracted only 0.3% of all industrial projects implemented in the country between 1992 and March 2012, compared with 4.54% in neighbouring Tamil Nadu.

With remittances projected to fall and unemployment rising, especially among the educated and the skilled, the state’s image clearly needs a makeover.

But as Pathrose Matthai, a senior advocate of Kerala High Court, points out, there is little chance of that happening when less than a month after the conference, industrial consumers of electricity in the state were asked to reduce their consumption by 25% during peak hours.

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An impenetrable ceiling

While Kerala takes prides in its gender statistics, the upper echelons of the state’s legal profession remain almost exclusively male

Of the 30 judges at Kerala High Court, only one is a woman from Kerala: Justice K Hema. The only other woman – Chief Justice Manjula Chellur – moved to the court last November after 11 years at Karnataka High Court. For many women lawyers in Kerala the under-representation of women at the top of Kerala’s judicial system is deeply troubling.

“We have made many representations to the government, and to the Bar Council of Kerala and Bar Council of India … but to no avail,” says NN Girija, an Ernakulum-based lawyer who is secretary of the Kerala Federation of Women Lawyers. She points out that there are several high-calibre women lawyers in Kerala, but few are considered for the bench.

This disparity is in sharp contrast to the Kerala’s much-publicized gender statistics, which suggest that the state’s women enjoy the best quality of life in India. Kerala has 1,084 females for every 1,000 males. The life expectancy of women is 76 years, and the maternal mortality rate is a relatively low 81 for every 100,000 births. Female literacy stands at 91.98%, compared with 96.02% for males.

Pushing their way in

Kerala also boasts many women lawyers. Girija says her organization has 1,304 active members, and around 15,000 women lawyers are practising across the state, alongside 50,000 men.

Girija believes the odds are stacked against women. “A lawyer’s income is low, but the workload is high and while men somehow manage to cope, women often move on to less strenuous jobs as soon as they find one,” she explains. “A woman lawyer typically has multiple responsibilities, and the pressure of work can be intolerable.”

Working conditions for women lawyers at the Kerala High Court have improved steadily over the years. The court – a modern building that has been in use for six years – has separate rooms complete with a library and secretarial facilities for women lawyers to use while they wait for their cases. But none of this came easily.

“We insisted that lady lawyers needed separate space within the high court,” says Justice KK Usha, a former chief justice of Kerala High Court and the first woman in Kerala to be elevated to the bench from the bar. Justice Usha says some male members of the bar opposed facilities specifically for women lawyers when the new high court building was designed. But the court allotted space, which was furnished by the Federation of Women Lawyers and contributions from the family of Justice Janaki Amma, a former judge of Kerala High Court.

More such facilities may be sought when the large numbers of women currently studying law enter the profession.

A changing scenario?

“More than 70% of students at the School of Legal Studies are women,” says NS Gopalakrishnan, a professor at Cochin University of Science and Technology. He suggests female students regularly outnumber males in law colleges across Kerala. As a result, Gopalakrishnan expects that the profession in Kerala will have many more women in the future and “the legal function will be under women” in a few decades.

The success of lawyers such as Sumathi Dandapani, a senior advocate of Kerala High Court, indicates that clients do not necessarily consider the gender of a lawyer while deciding who to turn to for legal advice.

“As long as you can do the job it doesn’t matter whether you are a man or a woman,” says S Karthika, a lawyer who practises at Kerala High Court.

Karthika is Justice Usha’s daughter and chances are she will know what it takes to push her way forward. Many more women practising in Kerala will need to figure this out if there is to be some semblance of a gender balance at the top of the state’s legal system.