For Women in Law

Happy women’s month!

We are very intentional about emphasizing the diverse career paths that a law degree can unlock so when I came across Carmela’s Linkedin profile, I just knew that she would be a perfect candidate to interview.

Carmela holds an LLB and an LLM in International Law & Legal Studies. In 2020 she joined Diageo South Africa as a Corporate Relations Graduate. She was promoted to Assistant Sustainability Manager in 2021 and then as Sustainability Manager in 2023. Earlier this year, Carmela left Diageo and joined the Johannesburg Society of Advocates as a pupil Advocate. In this interview she explains her reasons for not initially taking the traditional legal career route and I think that a lot of law graduate will relate to this.

Below is our interview with this phenomenal #womaninlaw.

FWIL:

What inspired you to study law?

CK:

Growing up my career aspirations wavered from day to day. A psychologist, a TV presenter and a make-up artist were my top three.  In high school, I really enjoyed public speaking and debating. I also excelled in subjects such as History and English. All of this mirrored my then limited understanding of the legal field. So, I dug deep to answer one question: how can I develop what I’m already good at, in order to truly impact peoples’ lives? The answer was and still is “law”. Although, I would be lying if I said my absolute obsession with shows like Suits and Scandal had nothing to do with it!

FWIL:

After completing your law degree, you did not immediately go the articles or pupillage route but instead you joined Diageo South Africa where you served as a Sustainability Manager (until recently). Why did you choose this route?

CK:

The harsh reality is that I was unable to secure articles of clerkship right away. Many LL.B graduates are no stranger to this. However, I am a strong believer in creating your own path and broadening your horizons. ESG is a dynamic and evolving field, which is premised on the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations. As I said, I have always been passionate about social impact and that, coupled with my master’s in Public International Law made this opportunity a no brainer.  In fact, this leap of faith opened up a brand new world to me, and most importantly it equipped me with transferrable skills which are in high demand right now. That in itself is priceless! Looking back, I am so glad that I did it! I would encourage any other law graduate who is considering an alternative route to do the same.

FWIL:

Do you think the work you did at your previous employer has equipped you for your new venture as a pupil advocate?

CK:

Absolutely. I think one of the golden keys to thriving in corporate during the early stages of your career, is the ability to anticipate the questions that the decision makers will ask, and then prepare yourself accordingly. So far, I have seen that this is mirrored in the courtroom as well. Obviously one cannot anticipate every single thing, and there will be (massive) curveballs at times but in all honesty? I love it!

FWIL

Why did you choose the Advocate route and not the Attorney route?

CK:

First and foremost, the Bar serves as a training ground for a career as a Judge on the High Court Bench, who are often appointed from the ranks of Senior Counsel. That is my ultimate aspiration, and it is my greatest hope that my time at the bar will culminate in the same. Secondly, as an advocate you are an independent practitioner who forms part of a distinguished association. Upon qualifying I really look forward to the element of autonomy, while simultaneously upholding the standard and excellence of the Bar.

FWIL:

As a black woman in law, have you experienced gender and race-related bias? Please tell us about the challenges, if any, that you have faced.

CK:

I am still relatively new in this field, so I am yet to experience these challenges. However, I am aware that the profession as a whole is making a concentrated effort when it comes to transformation from a gender and race perspective. This is something that I support whole-heartedly. 

FWIL:

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

CK:

An alpha female is a woman who has embraced her ambitions, which she has defined for herself. She is talented, she is highly motivated, and most importantly she is confident in her own right. Yes, I would describe myself as one, however, I believe that the concept in itself continues to evolve as I grow through life.

FWIL:

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

CK:

100% yes! Anyone who knows me, knows how passionate I am about women empowerment and women’s rights. Not to impose my beliefs on anyone but I believe that every single woman should be a feminist. Feminism is the foundation of paying it forward on the quest for gender equity.

FWIL:

What does women empowerment mean to you?

CK:

To me, “women empowerment” is any action that promotes our sense of self- worth and our ability to determine our own lives. This can be big or small, every single action counts.

FWIL:

The journey of most 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?

CK:

The greatest lesson I have learned is that most things, if not all things, are fleeting. This actually works out in your favour when it comes to negative situations. For example, if you have made a mistake at work, eventually the turmoil will come to pass. In the same breath, the glory of any achievement in your professional career will not last forever. This has taught me to stay calm in all situations and to constantly set new benchmarks for myself.

FWIL:

As a 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?

CK:

I’m very traditional when it comes to networking. Especially at the Bar, nothing beats forming a connection in person! Literally knocking on doors, introducing yourself and showing a genuine interest in the other person and their practice is all you need. The key, however, is to try and maintain these relationships as best you can. Check in regularly.

FWIL:

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

CK:

I think a role model is anyone that you can see a little bit of yourself in, leading a life that you aspire to. My sister is my ultimate role model! Although she is not a lawyer, she has excelled in her field as a Charted Accountant and Vice President at a leading bank. I have never subscribed to the notion that women can’t have it all: a thriving career and a happy family life.  She is showing me every single day not only that it can be done, but more importantly, how to do it.

FWIL:

What books have you read that have greatly influenced your life?

CK:

I recently read a book called “Clear Thinking” by Shane Parrish. It identifies what the author calls “the enemies of clear thinking”, and then also sets out a framework to make better decisions. I think this is a must read, as after all life is just a series of everyday decisions.  

FWIL:

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

CK:

My previous director once shared this with me and it has stuck ever since. It goes, “if the sun refuses to rise, we will make it rise” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. For me this really speaks to being tenacious no matter what and even more so during the darkest of times.  

FWIL:

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

CK:

Mentorship and platforms such as For Women in Law are so important! When I was applying for pupillage, I relied on such platforms to not only help me prepare for the interview but also give me a sense of what I was signing up for. So yes absolutely, I would love to mentor law students who are considering pupillage or alternative career paths.

FWIL:

How can people reach out to you? (social media handles)

CK:

Please reach out to me on LinkedIn @CarmelaKabakisa.

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