Women in Law. So Many Roles to Play, So Little Time


“What I wish for the world: less judging, more kindness.”

Metka Potočnik, is a Lecturer in Law at Wolverhampton Law School, University of Wolverhampton, UK.

Things are finally falling in place. It has been a couple of years since I have successfully defended my PhD; I am now (finally) in a full-time academic post and am expecting my first research monograph to be published in the summer. But to stop the story there, would be grossly misleading. As with most of our stories, things have been challenging, complex and put simply: life.

I started reading law in 1999 at the University of Ljubljana. I was under the impression that most of my fellow students were female, and most of the professors, male. It was therefore so much more inspiring to attend lectures delivered by female professors, as I could see myself in their role in a couple of decades: if I committed to hard work, perseverance and dedication to the law. At the start of my studies, I was oblivious to any politics, gender imbalance or other recruiting schemes I might have to get familiar with, before getting a full-time academic post.

Through my studies at the University it became apparent that I was unlikely to end up at my home institution as one of its lecturers or professors. Not only was there a limited number of posts available, the areas of law taught, was not really in my interest sphere. Instead, what most of us have chosen to do, was to qualify for the Bar. In order to take the exams, we all had to participate in mandatory training scheme at the Courts. Here, the picture has changed drastically: most of the judges were female, whereas most of the legal counsel (although admittedly not all), were male. Surprisingly to me, although 90% of Appeals judges were female, most Supreme Court Justices were male. It was well-known in the legal community that the better paid jobs were in advocacy, whereas one would choose the position of a judge as their vocation. Or that’s how the story goes.

After qualifying for the Bar in 2008, I was presented with a choice: either enter the legal profession of advocacy (Slovenia, unlike the UK does not distinguish between solicitors and barristers; once qualified, an advocate can appear in court) or choose the vocation of a judge. In both professions, I would start at the bottom, and work my way up. This binary choice however seemed too obvious to me, and I have instead opted to expand my horizons beyond the home jurisdiction. I have successfully applied for an L.LM programme at King’s College London, and received a full scholarship from Parus Foundation to fund my studies. In continuing my studies abroad, I left the comfort of the familiar choices behind me, and perhaps find my own way forward.

London was a great city for an international (EU) student. A diverse culture; a complete mix of different characters and experiences; and most importantly, a place among many, where one can discover one true self. In this environment I was able to freely explore the areas of law I wanted to specialise in, and further dedicate my career (if not life) to. Academic freedom notwithstanding, I had no appreciation of the UK academic or indeed the structure of the legal profession in general: I was in London to fully immerse into the studies I found most interesting: international arbitration and trade mark law. These two areas continue to be my partners today; we are yet to part ways.

Upon the award of the L.LM award I returned to Slovenia to practice law. As a judicial clerk or junior judge at the Appeals Court (Višje Sodišče v Ljubljani), I was given the opportunity to apply my recently acquired expertise in all areas of commercial law, intellectual property law and insolvency law. The transition was not without its challenges though: I have become a stranger to an environment, I was previously accustomed to. I now had the understanding of both civil law and common law jurisdictions and the advantages or disadvantages of both systems. In my enthusiasm to share my newly acquired knowledge, I have inadvertently challenged “the way we do things” and this has not been accepted well by all. In many cases, I have been made to feel a stranger in my own jurisdiction. Nevertheless, my different approach to the law was not threatening to all alike: some found it refreshing. I have chosen to focus on the numerous strong female judges at the Commercial Department at the Appeals Court, which have given me a second wave of inspiration to pursue my dreams in law. Rather than following in their footsteps, I have decided to reverse course, and return to the environment, more focused on international law.

The final stop in my journey in law has been to the role of an academic in international law. Being lucky to be awarded with a Herschel Smith Scholarship in IP law, I started my PhD research at Queen Mary University London, CCLS in 2012. My research carried a conversation between two communities in law: intellectual property lawyers and international arbitration (investment) lawyers. Familiar with international arbitration, I was also opening a dialogue between civil law and common law jurisdictions, all in the search of a common way forward. Hoping to create a conversation, or perhaps build a bridge between the two communities, I often fell between the gaps and struggled to communicate effectively with even one of the communities. It was only after my PhD viva; and now, in my full-time position at Wolverhampton Law School, that I have made a conscious choice to no longer feel out of place: I am creating my own space, to which I welcome any interested academic, fellow researcher or student alike.

Feeling out of place, while at the same time, feeling like I am making the right choice, has been the underlying theme of my journey in law (so far). If much of the journey was challenging, it was not always because I was not “one of the boys.” Far from it. It was the deliberate choice to colour outside the lines, think outside the box and make connections outside of my discipline or the class, I was supposed to belong to. I have switched jurisdictions, professions, legal disciplines and languages a couple of times in the past twenty years. I was judged for all these choices and switches; and many more. And if I reflect on it in earnest, I doubt that I am done switching. It was the diversity of the experience and the need for constant innovation, change and inspiration that has given me the permission to decide on my own: what do I value, stand for and promote. Only by constant change, did I discover my centre.

Freedom to follow your choices does not come cheap and is not for all. The roles we are expected to play as women; as lawyers; as academic researchers; as experts in one area of law or another can be constricting. In order to create constructive dialogue outside our designated spaces, we need a party to start the dialogue with us: a one-way conversation is an isolating one. In order for there to be appreciation of our different experience, background, and characters, there must be a willingness to first understand the differences; second, the acceptance of the different languages we speak (and I do not only mean linguistically); and finally, there must be a commitment to embrace the differences, without the temptation to judge. For the many roles we play in our lives, women are judged for the choices they make constantly. That, in my opinion, is something we can do without.

What I wish for the world: less judging, more kindness. Live and let live. And as every year, I join and celebrate the International Women’s Day as a proud member of this prestigious group.

Metka’s forthcoming book ‘Arbitrating Brands: International investment Treaties and Trademarks‘ will be published in August 2019. More information is available here.

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