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Law Firm ILN-telligence Podcast | Brendah Mpanga, BNM Advocates

Brendah Mpanga is the founding partner of BNM Advocates in Kampala, Uganda, which is also one of the ILN member firms. In this episode, Brendah and Lindsay discuss the deep gender inequalities that African women are facing, as laid bare by the pandemic, the steps that the government and powerful women leaders have taken to rectify those inequalities, and how Brendah, as a leader herself, of a primarily female firm, has navigated some challenging times. This is a not-to-be-missed episode!

You can listen to the podcast here, or we’ve provided a transcript of the highlights below.

Lindsay: Hello, and welcome to the Law Firm ILN-telligence Podcast. I’m your host Lindsay Griffiths, Executive Director of the International Lawyers Network. Our guest this week is one of our newest members. I’m so excited to have her with us, Brendah Mpanga from BNM Advocates in Uganda. Brendah, we’re really happy to have you with us this week.

Brendah: Thank you. Thank you, Lindsay, for having me.

Lindsay: So why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself and your firm and your practice?

Brendah: All right. My name is Brendah Mpanga. I am the founder and managing partner of a law firm in Kampala. It is a full-size law firm, a full-service law firm comprising 98% women. It’s been in the market for six and a half years now. We do typical legal work you’d find the Kampala lawyer doing that covers litigation, corporate governance, corporate advisory, transaction advisory, and conveyancing, and we do a lot of work with SMEs and investors in regards to providing investment readiness services from a legal and corporate governance perspective. And we also work with a number of local international NGOs, again on governance and regulatory compliance aspects. About me, I am a mother of three beautiful daughters, married to one husband. And outside work, I love to read, I love to dance, and have some me time, which I’ve found to be something that is very important, especially after the pandemic that we’ve just been through. I realize that it is important to take some time to breathe and feel yourself and feel happy and move on.

Lindsay: I totally agree with you. I think I found the same thing. I think it’s been very important to have some me time and self-care. Absolutely. So, we’re really excited to have your firm and now we have two firms in Africa. That’s been a struggle for us as a Network and it was very exciting for me to have a firm that is 98% women. So, that’s actually one of the things that we’re focusing on in our conversation today. So, I was curious to hear your take on how you felt that the pandemic disproportionately affected women in the workplace.

Brendah: Right. I’m happy to be one of two law firms speaking from an African perspective, and I hope that I will represent Africa quite well. In terms of the issue of the pandemic disproportionately affecting women in the workplace, I think that by nature, women, African women, we are caregivers. Society has branded us that way. So it is an unwritten rule about women having to take responsibility to care for others. And when the pandemic hit with very many instances, women had to take time off work regardless of their title or responsibilities. And if a family member was unwell, because very common to find somebody off work for that reason, even when they had no COVID, but also even in the case that it was very dangerous, you still had to be physically present and make sure this person has had their meds. They’ve had their meals, they’re comfortable.

And this of course affected the way that we work because in certain cases, women were required to continue work. The concept of working from home became very paramount during that time. And you had to make sure that you deliver excellently even in those circumstances. And I think that was quite a challenge. And I can give myself an example, my husband got Delta COVID in June last year, and it was a half year for us at the farm. We were doing an evaluation of our performance, seeing where we were at, planning for the next six months. And there I was with a sick husband at home who I couldn’t physically see. So I had to stay at home, but then also continue with the work, making sure that whatever needed to be done had to be done without giving my husband’s illness as an excuse. So yes, it is something that did affect women in that regard.

I also think that for our purposes, in the case of Uganda, we haven’t very many women working in that formal sector. And I recall that during the lockdown, women who work in the markets, vending food, had to stay in the markets because there was no transport for them to go back home and they had to use these makeshift washrooms. And I recall a story of a woman who died in one of the markets. I think that it was a cold night and rainy and cold night, and I think she was a bit sick. So she died at her stall. So, that resounded so much with the fact that even in certain very difficult conditions, women were still not given enough protection because this became a subject of discussion at the national level. Are they being protected enough? Do they have enough protective gear? What kind of support is being given to these women? And I remember that was a very sad moment for very many women.

Also, in addition, very many women during that time were also faced with domestic violence because one is that the men who were supposed to be going out to look for money to buy food were at home. And then, this woman who had a store at the market where should go make some money, and buy food was also at home in certain cases. And that bred ground for disagreements and domestic violence so that the domestic violence rate within families went very, very high. And then, the girl child as well was exposed to sexual abuse. I don’t know about you, but here, all the schools were closed. Some even certain schools could not afford to have classes online. So very many students were at home, and by nature of the families here, we have extended families where you have the uncles, nieces, and nephews, all staying in the same place.

So very many girls actually got pregnant. So teenage pregnancy shot up. Very many girls were exposed to sexual harassment. It was quite sad. I just thought that I needed to mention that as well, compounding that was also an increase in depression and mental illness. And I think this issue has actually become a global issue and very many globally different patients did face this problem. It was reported that the suicide rating increased to 6.5%, which was something very uncommon in Uganda. So I believe that COVID, this population actually affected women in those ways.

Lindsay: The numbers that you’ve quoted for all of those things are staggering. And I think certain parts of that are certainly things that we’ve seen globally. We certainly saw a rise in depression and anxiety. And as you said, domestic violence went up here too. But your point about the increase in teenage pregnancy and additional sexual assaults is just things that I don’t know that everyone grapples with. And I think there are long-lasting effects that are generational. And I think that affects opportunities for women going forward that will have long-lasting effects for them and will affect what they then are able to do throughout their lives.

Brendah: Although I recall that at a national level, the tragedy came out and I think a little government to say, these girls should not be taken out of school, let them continue with school as much as they can, and then let them give birth to the babies and then life goes on. So while it was a sad moment, we were happy to hear that, at least even if their circumstances were not the best, most girls did go back to school and life continued.

Lindsay: That’s great. That’s great. And so, I’m interested to hear then what the impact has been then on leadership opportunities. Do you think then, because there is this recognition that there are these issues, but people accept that this is just something that we need to address? I think this is again, something that we see globally for women that women are just our caretakers, and many women did have this dual role of running businesses or being needed to work, but also being caretakers that obviously impacted their leadership abilities. But do you think that something will just then see a need for more leadership opportunities in the future, or maybe women will use the lessons that they learned during the pandemic and then translate that into leadership opportunities in the future?

Brendah: I think COVID affected all of us in different ways. And I think as well that the pandemic laid bare the deep gender inequalities that we have, but then what came out of that for example, I can say when we got to the reading of the budget here in Uganda, there were programs at a national level structured specifically to make sure that women are able to access finance through microfinance institutions, to help them strengthen their informal businesses, such that they are able to financially sustain themselves and their families, which I think was a good takeaway. Their national initiatives now that are in place to have women access finance through other development, even different development partners at little or no interest rate, interest rates in terms of financing. And this has generated activity, economic activity for women, even at a smaller level.

Then from a larger level, a larger scheme of things. I recall that the minister of health Honorable Ruth Jane, who is a woman, drove the discussions around the pandemic in a very… She wore the shoes and then drove the discussions and the directions in terms of this is what must happen. There were new policies in place to protect and safeguard people in the workplace. There was actually a new regulation, a new law that was passed, defining how we need to protect councils from COVID. If you are exposing other people to COVID, what does the law say? Because all those were gaps that we’d never really thought about. And for me, having a woman at the helm of that discussion was such a powerful statement. When I look at the large institutions or large operations in Uganda, the largest tribe, they’re all led by women and they led through these institutions during COVID. I don’t recall that there were layoffs in those institutions, work continued the way it was supposed to happen.

And I think some of those things, even if they were not really paid attention to, they redefine the fact that women are capable of driving strategy, driving institutions. It’s not so much about the fact that we are the weaker sex, something that society has branded us to be. I have seen that there are now equal opportunities in terms of there’s this job, whether you’re male or female, you have the ability to compete for it. And I think as women, we need to seize that opportunity and make sure that we are part of the conversations, both at a local national, regional, and international level.

Lindsay: That’s great. And I think that’s a really, seeing women in those powerful positions, especially for young women in the country must be such a powerful set of role models for those young women who are able to see them have those dual roles of, as you say, having a seat at the table and directing strategy. So, that’s really great and very exciting. So what have you seen, especially in your practice, as the impact on the young lawyers who are still building their careers presumably you went virtual for some parts of the pandemic, if you did, but what have you seen has been the impact on some of the young lawyers in the legal profession who were maybe unable to access the level of engagement with more senior lawyers that they might have normally had at the start of their careers? How did you as the founding partner of your firm deal with educating them and what have you seen as the impact on them?

Brendah: That’s right. I think it was quite unfortunate for the young lawyers because none of us had experienced anything like this. So, there was nothing to use as a benchmark to say, “Okay, in the last pandemic, what happened?” So this was quite novel. And one had to think quickly, how do I, as a founder in the law firm, as a leader in the law firm, how do I make sure that people are engaged, people are focused, people have balanced minds, but then again are able to deliver results? For the young lawyers, I think the impact was more or less negative because if you are in an environment where you’re able to engage with a senior lawyer and you’re physically present, both of you’re physically present, it makes the conversations easier, clearer. You spend less time having conversations. For us here, we have an open-door policy. Anybody can walk through my office and say, is this clause that, how do I deal with this?

And then you have a conversation and you move on and have that covered. But then, the fact that we were in a lockdown and you wouldn’t be able to access the young lawyer, I think it took longer for young lawyers to let’s say, grasp the principles of the law. If you need to, let’s say, work on a transaction, it took you a longer time because you needed guidance in terms of, “Okay, now I have three options. Which would be the best options with whom can I have this conversation?” And I think that was a step back. But then, what we did in terms of our law firm is that we would have Zoom meetings every day. How far are you with this? Do you have any challenges? What kind of support do you need? And then would have the conversations and that helped quite a bit in terms of execution of assignments, but then also if it required someone to even get on the phone would have to do that such that there’s clarity in terms of, “Okay, how do I complete this? And then deliver the task that I am supposed to do.”

From a legal practice perspective? I think it was the pandemic negatively affected young lawyers because it was different. It is always different. If you let’s say, go with the lawyer to court, the court decorum, the manner in which you address the judge is different. The manner in which you respond to an erratic opposite counsel and senior advocate is very different. So, they missed the act of seeing that advocacy in court which could delay your progress and experience because then we had to switch to Zoom, and then sometimes, of course, technology would let you down. Then we had a series of adjustments because you can’t have this session and it’s very plastic having to have a courtier over the computer. And I think it is still maybe because it’s still something that is very new to us here because we are used to the traditional way of doing things.

So even the courts were struggling, even the judges, first of all, understanding how to click, where do I click that kind of thing. And sometimes, you find yourself laughing at the judge. And he’s also finding something to say, “This is technology. It’s not my problem.” So, I think that they missed out on that for the two years that we had that disability now. So along that journey, it took a little bit longer to be able to gain the experience that they required to have.

Lindsay: I’m just thinking that it’s funny because I think we all have the benefit of knowing what the young lawyers are missing out on. And so, we all think of it as a learning curve of things that they are missing and that’s something that they need to catch up on. But I wonder if there might be skills that they gained during the pandemic and things that they learned that will benefit them longer term in their practice that we haven’t even considered. And I hope that’s the case, but as you say, I do think there are things that deficit and that skills gap, because they haven’t been in the office, but hopefully there are things that they gained that we haven’t thought of just because that’s not the way we’re used to doing it. But I am reminded there was a famous case here in the US where a lawyer accidentally turned himself into a cat.

Brendah: Yes, I think I saw that somewhere. It must have been on social media and it was hilarious. It was hilarious. Oh, God.

Lindsay: I always think of that one. I think it was a deposition and the lawyer had to tell the judge that he really wasn’t a cat. Yeah, that was funny. I’m wondering, how do you advocate? You talked a little bit in the beginning about the importance of taking time for yourself and self-care. I’m wondering, how do you advocate for yourself during a time of global crisis? I want to say we’re now used to dealing with a pandemic, but I think obviously the time of global crisis isn’t over. And so, how do you advocate for yourself? How do you support others on your team and in your office? You’re in a unique position being that you’re the founder of your firm and so you’re really directing the whole ship there. So, how do you find that you support yourself, but also than the others on your team?

Brendah: Let me start by saying that I’ve never seen anything like this in my life. Neither I think has my father seen anything like it is. He’s 77. So waking up in the middle of the night and where everything was quiet, you’d literally hear a pin drop at 3:00 AM, that scared the hell out of me. And it reminded me of the apocalypse. Very many times, I thought the world was literally ending. And I think I actually got anxious. I got a lot of anxiety out of that because I couldn’t sleep and wake up and there was nothing to do because you have nowhere to go to, and then I had to figure out how do I make my day useful, and then you have all these thoughts in your mind that are going on, that you had no answers to, but then you need to keep it together because you have the kids who are asking so many questions.

And then there’s this client who said this is pending, we lost a number of clients due to COVID it’s a total mess, I can say. And I remember that what we decided to do during the pandemic, if I may start from there was to have a video chat, a Zoom call every Friday morning with the team. And this was non-work related, all of us just had to say how our week was, what are you feeling, how is the family, what was going on, and what do you have planned for the weekend. And I found that it is an idea that came to mind because I found myself to be struggling and would not ordinarily meet and talk about work, but then nothing social or personal related. And when I started having those conversations with the team, I found that people had been struggling with different things.

People had anxiety, others had financial problems. I remember one of the team members who mentioned in the second call that we had that I am happy to hear that we have this engagement, but my landlord actually wants to throw me out of my apartment and I don’t have the money to pay. And I’m like, “Whoa.” So, we made arrangements and had that paid for, and she said, “Sorry, leave. Because I was anxious about the fact that we are in a lockdown. And then there was this issue that I had no response to.” Then another one, her mom got breast cancer had been diagnosed, I think the year before. And then she needed to travel about 300 kilometers to come to a hospital in Kampala, and she didn’t know how to figure this out, but because we were having these conversations, we were able to make a few calls and were able to arrange for transport for the mom to come for treatment in Kampala.

There were rewarding sessions because people felt that we had become family. Other than work, we don’t meet just to do work for clients, we are a family. We do care about each other. And up to this day, I realized that it was something that we needed to do back then. And then it indirectly fits into the way people do their work. They’re more present. People are more open and creative and I’m happy that the work environment is giving me those vibes because I think it was important. Now for me personally, I struggled with the whole thing. One is as a mother, as a wife, as a founder, as a person who has targets, who has to keep the engine running, it was quite stressful. And of course, because everybody was affected, you find that the client numbers dropped, the remuneration dropped, and then you have all these things that you need to pay attention to. And it was quite difficult.

Then we started having conversations in terms of positions, in terms of posts. Those were difficult conversations. I remember we had to have a pay cut for staff, but because we were having those weekly engagements, it became an easier conversation to have with the team. And they were saying, “Oh, we are happy. We are not being laid off. We’ll take half pay. And then, when they opened up the market a bit, we started to work in shifts. We would have not more than 40% of us in the office, which was also something that people were happy with because of the level of exposure, they were able to work from home within the comfort of their home. That again was a welcome thing. And I was happy about that. So we continued finding creative ways for how can we deliver results, amid all this confusion and drama that was eating the world.

Personally, I found that I needed to work out every day. It became something that I held onto for my sanity, and also it helped with reducing my anxiety levels. So, I’d look forward to these two hours of working out, and then I would go for a walk in the evening because again, there was nothing else to do. But then during those walks, I found that I would be more at peace. And then I also used that time to plan for the six months ahead. So by the time we came back, I was able to roll out a plan to say, these are the strategies that we want to put in place, and let’s have input from everybody. So we had some soft planning in terms of continuing with our work. And then, of course, spending time with my daughters. And then, I needed to answer so many questions because young minds wondering what is this COVID. And I remember we got COVID, my eight-year-old, once they gave us the results. She burst into tears saying, “Oh, mommy. I’m going to die. We are going to die.” And I said, “No, don’t worry. We’ll be fine. I have COVID, you have COVID. We’ll be fine.” So I found that I needed to be physically present more for my family comforting them, and it make the period bearable as well.

Lindsay: But that’s all wonderful. And I think it mirrors a lot of people’s experiences and a lot of leaders’ experiences and that you spent a lot of time thinking and processing and dealing with a lot of your own anxieties and questions, but also that sense of the investment you made in communicating with your team, which really paid off. And I think the people that did spend that time communicating with their team found that even though we though didn’t necessarily know what was going to happen when you spent that time communicating with people, they felt more confident in what was… even though we didn’t know what was going to happen, that you would communicate when the time was right. That thing would work out as best as they could. And obviously, that’s born out for you and the firm.

Brendah: Absolutely.

Lindsay: So the legal industry in general, I think has made a lot of changes in recent years. And we’ve obviously seen that pick up a lot in the last two and a half years. And you talked a lot about the incidence of the mental health crisis in general, I think, thanks to the pandemic, but we’ve seen it a lot too in the legal profession in general. And I think that’s just because of the nature of the work that lawyers do. So, I’m just wondering if you think if we’ll ever change the way that the profession frames, personal and professional success to alleviate some of the pressures that we have in the legal profession. You talked about this, and what you did to alleviate some of the anxieties that you have, which I think is really important to balance out that anxiety. But I’m wondering if you think in the legal profession in general, if you’ve seen any strides towards that balance to protect lawyers’ mental health.

Brendah: I don’t want to sound pessimistic, Lindsay, but this is a very… Society here has branded lawyers as the noble profession and they are the well to dos in society. And because of that, there’s a lot of pressure to make things happen, pressure to be that a member of that mobile profession. Drive that big car, which is a definition of success for very many young lawyers. I need to be seen by my client driving the best car, having the best house, that kind of thing. And with that, of course, comes a lot of pressure, and a lot of hard work, which subsequently exposes lawyers to depression and mental illness.

Here, we’ve had a number of cases as well of lawyers who have fallen into that trap, whether or not there’s something that is being done is another question. But I have seen that the Ugandan Bar Association has started mandatory CLE which would call the CPD continuing professional development programs targeted towards lawyers to make sure that they understand the impact of stress and COVID. I attended that training recently on stress management, and the importance of sleep, which was very interesting. And it is something that is very common among lawyers. Lawyers don’t sleep because they have all these things that they need to do. And for me, that was a good sign if it is something that is being done at a national level. And then, there are programs with different insurance partners that have developed insurance programs again, to support lawyers that are struggling with depression and mental illness. As I said, I don’t want to sound pessimistic, but I think we have a very long way to go.

Again, if I may use my husband as an example, my husband is a practicing advocate as well. He’s a partner in a law firm here. When he got COVID after the stressful two and a half weeks, he said, “I need to stop working like this. I need to pay attention to what matters in life. Sometimes work from home, maybe have enough sleep hours.” And I laughed because I think three weeks later he was straight back into his cycle. So, I think it needs to start at a personal level to realize that this is my life and I need to do something about it. And I can say maybe again from a pessimistic point of view, that if we have a law that says you’re supposed to work for three hours and then have a day off maybe because we loved what the law is for other people, but then are not very sensitive to what this work is doing to us. So I think we still have a very, very long way to go in terms of defining what success means, having that mind shift is going to take quite a bit of time.

Lindsay: I agree with you. I think you’re right. So as we wrap up, the last question I always ask is what is something outside of the law and everything going on right now that you are really enjoying?

Brendah: Which I am really enjoying? After the pandemic, I made a decision not to work long hours at work. So, I leave work at least 3:30, 3:30 to 4:00 PM. I go home, do a dance class, and go to the gym. 70%, 80% of my week, I leave work early and I’ve found that to be very comforting and peaceful and I love the space. So 3:30, I am sorry, I’m not going to see you, I’ll go home. I’ll go home. So, I do other things that I enjoy doing outside work, and I’m very deliberate about them because at the end of the day, why are we here? Why are we on earth? What are the things that matter to us?

There’s this common saying, “Life is short.” Indeed it is if you think about it. So, are you going to spend all your life churning out the best legal opinions, or sometimes you’ll find a smarter way of doing it? I have chosen to do it smarter at the same time, taking comprehensive of the fact that I need to protect my mental health. I have other people that feed off me from an emotional perspective, so I need to have a full emotional bank for them that even when they drain me, I have the means to fill it up, so I pay attention to that and I love it.

Lindsay: I love that so much. That’s great. Yeah. I think that’s wonderful. Well, thank you so much, Brendah, for doing this. I’ve really enjoyed our conversation and thank you so much to our listeners. We will be back next week with another guest, and please take a moment to rate, review and subscribe over on Apple Podcast or wherever you listen to podcasts. And we will talk to you again soon. Thank you very much.