WOMAN IN LAW INTERVIEW WITH CLAIRE JAMIE-LEE NOLAN

Welcome to another #womaninlaw Interview! This month we chat with Claire Nolan who is an associate attorney specialising in employment law at one the Big Five law firms in South Africa. Claire specialises specifically in both the commercial and litigation aspects of employment law.

Her dreams of wanting to be lawyer was almost extinguished by a comment made in high school that she was “too quiet to be a lawyer”. 

PS, one day we need to talk about the myth that lawyers are “talkative” or that you have to have an extroverted personality in order to be a good lawyer.

“I am still quiet person, but this has not hindered my abilities as a legal practitioner.” – Claire. Yes ma’am!

Below is our interview with this phenomenal # womaninlaw.

FWIL:

What inspired you to study law?

CN:

When I was younger, I really wanted to be a lawyer. I had a vision of standing up for others and making sure that justice and equality were a reality for everyone. This dream was extinguished by a comment in high school that I was “too quiet to be a lawyer”. I unfortunately believed this and decided to consider other careers. The idea of law became something unattainable until I was choosing my subjects for university, and I was presented with the opportunity to take both law and psychology. I remembered that childhood dream and decided to pursue both and decide later which I loved more. I clearly chose law. As a side note – I am still quiet person, but this has not hindered my abilities as a legal practitioner.

FWIL:

What drives you and what does building a legacy look like to you?

CN:

As cliché as it sounds, I am really driven by my desire to help people and make a difference. To me this doesn’t need to be a profound or world-changing difference but rather significant changes for the individuals I encounter. I take pride in knowing that in some way I have helped someone else. I apply this both inside and outside of my legal career. In terms of legacy, I was the first person in my immediate family to go to university. This in and of itself drives me to take full advantage of the opportunities I have that my parents didn’t. I have worked hard at returning the sacrifices my parents made so that I could be successful.

FWIL:

Why a specific interest in Employment Law?

CN:

I initially wanted to practice family law as I believed that this is where I would have the most impact and make a real difference. After working in the family law unit at Wits Law Clinic, going through university and vacation work, I realised that employment law is centred on the principles of fairness, and this intrigued me. The fairness element resonated with my core values and made me realise that I could make a similar impact in this area of law. I also have a background in psychology which I felt aligned with very human practice of employment law as it deals with people’s livelihoods. The understanding that corporate employment lawyers “protect” big bad corporations in misguided in that we are guided by the principles of fairness and therefore are in the business of “protecting” what is right in law.  I also remind myself that these big corporations provide employment to many individuals who also each have their own families to support – protecting the interests of corporations also protects the interests of all of these people.

FWIL:

You recently published an article on the inclusion of domestic workers in the definition of an “employee”. For many people, it was shocking to discover that until recently domestic workers unlike other workers were not afforded the same protection under COIDA. This is such an important win.

Why do you think it took so long to have Domestic Workers recognised as employees under the ACT?

CN:

I think traditionally, “home” or a “household” wasn’t considered a typical workplace. Similarly, the employment relationship between a domestic worker and her employer was not as formally defined as that of a traditional employment relationship. It would be interesting to see just how many domestic workers actually have signed an employment contract and receive employment benefits in terms of our legislation. These aspects coupled with the aims and objectives that COIDA provides (protection from workplace injuries/illnesses), there was never a direct link between the benefits afforded thereunder and the work of domestic worker which some may argue wasn’t particularly ‘hazardous’ – which is in fact senseless in hindsight! The judgment in Mahlangu and another versus Minister of Labour and others, demonstrates that injury is just as likely to occur in a home as it is at any other workplace and as such, domestic workers (and their dependents) must be afforded social security in the event of injury, disablement or death at the workplace. 

FWIL:

What does being an alpha female mean to you and would you describe yourself as one?

CN:

An Alpha female is a female who doesn’t define herself by the limited beliefs created by specified gendered roles. She is someone who embraces being a female despite the stereotypes and chases her dreams despite the societal or generational obstacles. An Alpha female is someone who has had many doors closed on her but with her own inner resilience doesn’t let this keep her out of the room. I am an Alpha Female because:

  • I don’t see my gender as a deterrent to my career or any other goal.
  • My success is based on my hard work and output.
  • I am self-motivated and will find a way to overcome any obstacles placed before me, be that closed doors or misguided assumptions about me as a female.

FWIL:

Do you identify as a feminist? (Why/why not)

CN:

Yes, I would say I identify as a feminist. I was fortunate to grow up in a home that did not teach me how to act or be like a “girl”. My parents encouraged me to pursue any hobby I wanted be that playing with barbies or playing soccer (which was considered a “boy” sport). In fact my dad bought me my first pair of soccer boots and came to all my games. I realised later in life that this was not everyone’s reality. I came across various opinions on how a woman should act and what a woman should do. I was also shown all the barriers in place for woman because of their gender. This made me more conscious of the benefits of my upbringing and started my identification as a feminist as I believe all women should be able to permeate any space, as simply to our male counter parts.

FWIL:

What does woman empowerment mean to you?

CN:

Woman empowerment means encouraging a woman to be anything she wants to be and not play a role or try to fit into boxes created by society. Instead, she should be encouraged to be authentically who she is and pursue anything she wants to.

FWIL:

The journey of most legal professionals is not always easy. What are some of the lessons you have learned along the way and how have they shaped your outlook on life?

CN:

Gender and race still play a prominent role in the world of work and specifically in the legal fraternity. I am mixed race, identify as coloured but I am ‘white passing’. From experience, I have noticed that I am treated differently when categorised as either white or coloured. This has showed me that fairness and equality has a long way to go in terms of both race and gender. In saying this, I have also experienced the privileges from the same circumstances and so I always check my privilege but at the same time never underestimate the work that I’ve put into my career and my growth. This hard work relates to my individualism and not any labels or identification I give myself or that are given to me by others.

FWIL:

What is the best advice you would give to a woman in law?

CN:

Be aware of the importance that gender plays in a workplace. While this is slowly changing, I think there’s still so much for women to do to ‘conquer’ the workplace. My advice is to recognise that inequalities may exist but do not let it define you. Don’t shrink to fit in, speak up in meetings and seminars, don’t shy away from eye contact and seek out or establish a network of women in your workplace who can remind you that you deserve to be where you are – and who you are.

FWIL:

What attributes do you think every young lawyer must have?

CN:

  • Professionalism (i.e. organisation) – I am the self-proclaimed queen of organisation and I think that has really helped me stand out as reliable and efficient.  
  • Adaptability and Flexibility – no case is the same and as a lawyer you need to adapt and adjust quickly.
  • Communication is key – this is applicable to both working with others and working with clients.
  • Willingness to listen and learn – practice is not cut and paste what you learnt in university – you need to accept that you are entering a legal space to learn from others (who have been doing this for years) rather than to prove how much you learnt in university.

FWIL:

What recent change/amendment in the law has caught your attention? (Do you agree with the change? Why/why not)

CN:

The Minister of Employment and Labour has published the new Code of Good Practice on the Prevention and Elimination of Harassment in the Workplace (the Code) in terms of the Employment Equity Act (EEA). The Code became effective on 18 March 2022 and repealed the Amended Code of Good Practice on the Handling of Sexual Harassment Cases in the Workplace. There are a number of key take aways from this amendment but the ones that stand out to me are that the Code deals with the concept of harassment broadly and highlights sexual harassment and racial, ethnic or social origin harassment as specific forms of harassment; and the Code recognises that harassment includes violence, physical abuse, psychological abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, gender-based abuse and racial abuse. The inclusion of sexual harassment as a specific form of harassment will hopefully encourage victims to feel that they are protected by the law and should speak up about any sexual harassment they may be victim to. Also, mental health is an area I am particularly passionate about and so I welcome the recognition of psychological and emotional abuse as harassment set out in the Code.

FWIL:

Our world is constantly changing, in your opinion, what are some of the challenges that legal professionals will face in future?

CN:

We have seen that traditional models of work may not fit into the new digital age of work and communication. The move to forced remote working demonstrated that we do not need an office in the traditional sense to do our work. However, this will inevitably affect the human element of work and how we relate to each other (with our colleagues and clients). Having just finished my articles as we went into remote working, I’ve experienced first-hand how remote work has impacted young lawyers in understanding the nuances of practising law (whether it be something as small as understanding how the dreaded printer works – if you know, you know – or how a team structures their arguments or opinions for clients). We will have to find a way to balance remote working and face to face interaction which is vital for younger lawyers. As I said earlier, it is important for young lawyers to listen and learn and the best ways to do this is face to face, instant interaction with people who have more experience than yourself.  

FWIL:

As a legal professional, it is quite important to effectively use your network. How do you meet other professionals and what are some of your effective networking skills?

CN:

Covid has impacted the way lawyers traditionally network as there has not been many physical networking opportunities the last 2 years. I started my role as an Associate in the height of Covid and this has made me more reliant on connecting via digital platforms such as LinkedIn. LinkedIn is also a great way to stay in contact with people you studied or worked with who could present great collaborative opportunities in the future.

FWIL:

What does the term “role model” mean to you? Is there a particular woman in your life that you consider a role model?

CN:

A role model is someone who possess and displays characteristics and values that one would want to imitate or draw from. A role model is someone who inspires you. My mom is definitely my role model. She came to South Africa from Zimbabwe (in the later part of Apartheid) as a coloured woman with no formal education. The odds were already stacked against her but despite this, the mother that I know is a successful manager for a large international pharmaceutical company. I have watched her entirely manage her team from home during Covid without breaking a sweat. She has instilled in me important lessons on how to not let my race or gender hold me back from being myself and pursuing my dreams, how to be a leader and how to persevere even when the road is not easy. She has also showed me how hard work can set you forward in life no matter where you started. I could go on and on about the strength of this woman but in a nutshell, she is the rock of our family and the essence of an Alpha female.

FWIL:

You also create content around books and have gained a quite a following on Instagram. What are you top 5 books and why?

CN:

Do not get me started on books – I’ve read well over 50 books already this year and people always ask how I read so fast. As a lawyer our job is to read, and I think that is where the skill comes from. I mostly read fiction as a form of escapism, so I will not even attempt to give you any recommendations on this as I’d need a lot more time and paper. I can recommend my top 3 non-fiction books that have impacted and stayed with me:

  • Atomic habits by James Clear (building systems that help you improve by 1% every day).
  • Untamed by Glennon Doyle (lessons on how to be true to yourself).
  • The Comfort Book by Matt Haig (mental health is important and you are not alone in your struggles, it is okay to not be okay sometimes but do not lose hope).

FWIL:

What’s a quote that you live by? Your mantra

CN:

Progress over perfection”. It is easy to get caught up in the idea of being perfect, but this usually does more harm than good. Focusing on perfection can create barriers to your own grith and abilities and lead you to a mind set of “I’m not good enough”. Instead, I try focus on always improving (little by little) – this is more attainable, practical and you can continually commit and ensure consistency in your life.

FWIL:

How do you remain autonomous while working in the legal field?

CN:

I think the main way I maintain my autonomy is by taking pride in every piece of work I produce. When I press send, I want to be satisfied that this is my best version of work even if it gets amended or changed – which is going to happen because we are all still learning. I’d rather feel like I did my best and be shown how to improve. I also maintain my core identity by staying true to who I am. I am not suddenly become a loud “stereotypical” lawyer because I was told how I should be – I am still my quiet high school self and use my other strengths to set me apart.

FWIL:

What is your take on mentorship and are you open to mentoring young lawyers or law students?

CN:

I take pride in making small differences where possible and one of the things I focus on in my own career is providing guidance and training to juniors in my team. I would be happy to similarly guide any young law students and candidate legal practitioner.

FWIL:

How can people reach out to you?

CN:

Please feel free to reach out to me via LinkedIn. If, like me, you are a lover of books, you can check out my bookstagram page – and we can talk all things books!)

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