TML Top Women: Ozioma Izuora Talks SWAG

Barr. Ozioma Izuora

Lawyer, Ozioma Izuora or “the Lioness of the Bar” as she is popularly known by her colleagues is a woman of many parts, but today TML recognises her passion for standing up for justice, speaking up for those without a voice and defending the helpless.

In keeping with the 2017 theme of the International Women’s Day which is “Women in the Changing World of Work: Planet 50-50 by 2030”, Ozioma spoke to TML on her journey as a female lawyer, how she manages work and life plus tips for becoming successful. You can read a summary of Ozioma’s impressive profile at the bottom of the post.

TML: The legal world is changing with significant implications for women. Tell us briefly about your journey

Ozioma: Law, for me, has always been like a self-assigned project of a soul seeking justice in a world reeking with the most absurd inequity and violence. I was a teacher engaged in shaping the minds of young adults, in the belief that well-brought up children make for a better world. With my background training in creative writing I, not only taught Literature and English Language, I engaged my students in acting and writing creatively on issues about the society in which they find themselves (many of them went on to publish their works) I prepared students for drama presentations on issues like HIV/AIDS, dangers of Child marriage, domestic violence, etc. These activities reminded me that I always wanted to study Law. Funnily, I changed my mind while filling the JAMB form because I believed a classmate who told me that I could not study Law since I had dropped History as a subject. (Thank God there are Guidance Counsellors in schools nowadays).

Anyhow, having returned from England with a Masters Degree, I attempted getting into a PHD Program. I had, in fact gone to register in the University of Calabar, where one Dr Lawal who was one of the consultants on the British Council project that sponsored the Masters Degree, was a lecturer. I already had two children before going to England. The third baby came at that point in time. As at 1991, I was worried about the prospect of going about on motor cycles (Okada was the favoured mode of transport in Calabar then). That put paid to the PHD plan…

I raised the matter of the study of Law, and convinced my husband I could have a go at the part-time program as I was teaching in Enugu – first in Queens’ School, and later in University of Nigeria Secondary School. From 1992 to 1999, inclusive of ASUU strikes and all, I had three of my five children and came out with a Law degree; Second Class Upper Division and won prizes in two subject areas. I felt empowered. I went to learn practice in the chambers of late Andrew Anyamene, SAN of blessed memory. Under his wings, I felt I could reach the skies…  But I was restless in full time litigation. I did not ‘feel’ justice ‘flowing’ in the manner I had hoped it would. I felt frustrated. I felt I could do more. It was hard explaining to my boss that I had to get more involved in NGOs that would advocate for the rights of those who had no one to speak for them.

I arrived in Abuja at the end of 2003. By 2004, I had trained as a mediator and an arbitrator and started my certification in all forms of Dispute Resolution mechanisms. I became active in FIDA and also registered Mediators & Advocates of Peace (LAMPAIX) with a senior colleague who shared in the objectives of quicker route to justice which is Peace-building and community/ family mediation processes. We have continued in advocacy interventions into various areas of rights violations, especially on Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG).  In recent times, we have participated in redrafting and advocacy on the Gender and Equal Opportunities Bill (GEOB), and on the Sexual Harassment in Tertiary Institutions Bill, among others. We have funded our way to attend and participate in various conferences, including the United Nations Sessions on Status of Women (CSW). I have been trained by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) International Training Institute in Turin and LAMPAIX has continued to plough in all such knowledge and strategies to train / counsel on alternatives that inure towards peace. FIDA was also a veritable avenue for affecting the lives of women and children. As a past Financial Secretary and Vice Chair, I introduced many innovations and projects to actualize our objectives.

In fact it was while advocating for women’s political rights that I got myself, quite by accident, into vying for the position of Vice Chair of Nigerian Bar Association, Abuja Branch. At the time, the issue that came up was that the executive committees of NBA at all levels were perpetually non-representative of the female gender. The situation still persists.  I wondered how women lawyers could go out there and tell the public that more women should be involved in partisan politics whereas lawyers called to the Supreme Court of Nigeria did not realise that their first constituency was NBA and that they needed to out themselves out so they can participate in decision making thereat?

As Vice Chair, I championed the idea that FIDA members should indicate interest in elective positions in NBA. Then we found out that a young lady had indeed, indicated interest in becoming the Vice Chair. Unfortunately, she was not a FIDA member at the time. I convinced the members that our mandate was the welfare of ‘women’ generally in which case, a non-FIDA member could enjoy our support too. We put our weight behind her, but the pressure from the men was too much for her to bear. When I realised they had promised to make her treasurer if she gave up on her aspiration for Vice Chair, I entered the race with barely a day or two to the end of time given by the Electoral Committee. I received massive support from both FIDA and NBA, both Elders and young lawyers. (I later discovered that some of my former students were among the young lawyers and had campaigned for me of their own accord! My reward for being a teacher was already being delivered here on earth!) That was how I ended up being Vice Chair of both FIDA and NBA – a record in two folds – I was also the first ever female Vice Chair of NBA in Abuja.

My journey? I am still on it…

TML: What are the pressures a female lawyer feels in a male dominated profession and how do you navigate through that?

Ozioma: Oh the pressures! There are many.

From my participation detailed above, it is obviously a boys’ company. Women even endure the indignity of being addressed as ‘Gentlemen in Skirts’ – a very pejorative description that tells the world you cannot dwell on your feminine limitations. But we are females. The reality is that our lives are wrapped around God-given duties. We become mothers and care-givers.  We do not hang around as do the men at all sorts of places where the men go to seal off deals. I suppose nothing stops us from doing that, though. At the end, the woman must make a choice regarding how much time she wants to give to the profession. The odds, therefore, are tilted ever so stiffly against women.

And there is the sexual harassment to contend with! Men do not see you as equal. In the early days, you would hear jokes about hurrying home to make supper for your husband. In fact in recent times, a senior lawyer was reported to have snapped at a lady in court, saying that he had a lawyer like her for a wife at home cooking for him.

I must say these forms of abuse are less now than when I started practice. Many women have succeeded in the profession too. Many have sacrificed a lot to achieve that. I am work in progress. I am happy I have impacted on many younger ones in the profession.

In fact I get invited to speak to the Young Lawyers Forum and similar fora on how to survive in the Law profession. There are no quick fixes but grueling hard work and sacrifice.

As I told Young Lawyers once, the key is to find your ‘SWAG’. These, in summary are:
Learn new SKILLS so you have more than just a Law degree to offer; WORK very hard and well at all assignments so that your devotion speaks for you and hopefully attracts more to you; acquire the right ATTITUDE to the practice of Law by dressing well, staying connected to the professional bodies and being known as a lawyer who is proud of the profession and protects it from infamy; and finally, be GODLY – unquestionable integrity is bigger than all the riches you may acquire. This is true for all lawyers, both male and female.

TML: How can professional women achieve a work/life balance? 

Ozioma: Work/ life balance is achieved under ‘SWAG’ described above. As a woman, one goes further than the man to balance the four areas related to practice. The reality of running a home must always come into play. There are many areas of practice to choose from.

For people like me who were not lawyers ab initio, we have more difficulty finding our feet sometimes in litigation, but with persistence and humility you will succeed. Lawyers are generally helpful to others where practice tips are concerned.

We often find ourselves earning little or nothing whereas we were comfortable in our previous occupations. These are the sacrifices one has to make for the transition. However, we also have more experience in other fields and with some creativity we are able to adapt those areas profitably. For instance, I prefer Arbitration practice because it is faster to dispose of cases than Litigation and I have a lot of training in it. I also write quite a lot. I am veering towards lecturing now. If you are a lawyer, you must realize that everyday is an opportunity to keep learning and broadening your horizon.

A woman who is in the process of having babies must have a good support system to help with the babies and the home. In FIDA, we have been pushing for more understanding from employers of young lady lawyers in employing favourable conditions of service. I was never in that category, but my heart goes out to them. Even as a teacher studying law and having babies, it was not nearly easy at all to cope.

TML: Can you give us your recipe for becoming a successful lawyer

Ozioma: Well, success is not a precise word. But I would say that I believe that a lawyer is successful, if she is able to maintain a balance between the four identifiable areas I have already pointed out.

Frankly, in my dictionary success is not always measured in monetary terms. If a lawyer makes money in questionable deals, they appear diminished in my eyes for all time. I am more respectful of lawyers that are just comfortable but whose words and approach to life appear trustworthy.

I also admire lawyers who keep improving themselves in all areas of learning. I am put off by lawyers whose language is incomprehensible. To me a successful lawyer is one who remains worthy in character and learning throughout his/her life: an honourable lady or gentleman.

TML: Thank you for taking the time to speak to TML

Ozioma: I thank you for the opportunity to share my thoughts on your platform. I have always thought The Metro Lawyer publications quite lucid and well-researched. Do keep up the good work of propagating best practices in the legal profession.

 

About Ozioma Izuora (Mrs) MCIArb(UK); MNIM    

Ozioma Izuora has degrees in Law and English. She also has a Masters in Language Education from Exeter University, England.

She has written many novels and plays including “Dreams Deferred”, (a novel which was nominated in NLNG Literature Prize in 2008 and won the ANA/NDDC/Ken Saro Wiwa Prize in 2009).

Ozioma has written several articles in law pages of newspapers and magazines such as ThisDay, Authority, Litigation Lawyer etc.

In the legal community, Ozioma has been Vice Chair, Abuja Branch of the Nigeria Bar Association and Vice Chair of International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA) Abuja Branch. She is PRO Abuja Chapter, Chartered Institute of Arbitrators (UK)

Ozioma is Managing Partner, Ozioma Izuora & Co, a Law Firm; Executive Director, Mediators & Advocates of Peace (LAMPAIX), an NGO devoted to peace-building and conflict resolution through training, advocacy and intervention.
She runs radio programs dramatizing conflict situations followed by discussions on resolution.  

In 1999, Ozioma won the University of Nigeria, Nsukka Faculty Prize for Best Graduating Student in Jurisprudence and International Law.

She currently has an Advanced Certificate of CIArb UK and Full Membership status and is member of several professional bodies.

Ozioma Izuora enjoys writing, reading singing and “being alive in every way”.

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