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Cypriot women leading the way in law

In the United States, the United Kingdom, and even Hong Kong, there are special empowerment societies to promote and defend the interests of women in the legal profession. Cyprus doesn’t have one, but then again it doesn’t seem to need it.

In 2014, female lawyers in Cyprus surpassed males in number for the first time, an impressive feat for a tiny country that first saw a woman practise law in 1951, but had no female judge until 1986, nor a female Supreme Court justice until 2004. But the fact will come as no surprise to anyone who looks at the figures – year after year over the past decade, the proportion of women lawyers in Cyprus has been rising steadily.

Earlier this month the Limassol Bar Association ceremonially honoured the first 50 women to join the legal profession in Cyprus. Investigative work by lawyer Ioanna Samara revealed their names, some well-known, others less so, yet others outright surprising.

Stella Soulioti, Cyprus' first women lawyer and the only woman to have served as attorney-general
Stella Soulioti, Cyprus’ first women lawyer and the only woman to have served as attorney-general

In 1951, Stella Soulioti – who, unbeknownst to her at the time, would go on to become her country’s first, and so far only, female attorney-general – became the first woman lawyer in Cyprus, a profession then comprising 387 men. Number eight was Evie Kasoulidou, mother of Foreign Minister Ioannis Kasoulides. Before becoming First Lady, parliamentarian, and a European Commissioner, Androulla Vassiliou had been the 13th woman to practise law in Cyprus. Evie Kasoulidou’s daughter, Gavriella, was the 25th. The ‘first-50’ list also includes the only Turkish Cypriot woman ever to have registered in the Republic, Shefika Hassan Hilmi Durduran, at 42.

Women lawyers in Cyprus have come a long way since then. The Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe (CCBE) reports that 2,994 lawyers were listed in Cyprus as of 2015, of whom 1,505 – or more than half – were women.

“Nowadays, law is a field dominated by women, at least at entry-level – the figures tend to even out a few years into lawyers’ professional life,” said associate professor of law at the University of Cyprus Nikitas Hadjimihail.

“Some women experience ‘profession fatigue’ and tend to go after law-related jobs, becoming judges and so on, because these offer stable income and fixed working hours, as opposed to being a practising lawyer, where the hours can be really challenging,” he said, adding that others leave the profession altogether in order to focus exclusively on having a family.

Former first lady and EU commissioner Androulla Vassiliou was the 13th woman to practise law in Cyprus
Former first lady and EU commissioner Androulla Vassiliou was the 13th woman to practise law in Cyprus

Former First Lady Androulla Vassiliou confirmed this analysis.

“The reason I left the profession was the situation in Cyprus’ courts,” she told the Sunday Mail.

“For a married woman, every minute counts, and when you go to court only to see yet another adjournment on top of the last one, it’s exhausting. I was actually the first woman that applied for the position of judge, back in the 1970s, and my application was seen as offensive to the panel that was to make the decision. The colleague that got the job had less experience than I had, and he had no Masters’ degree.”

In part, Hadjimihail explained, the recent surge in female lawyers is due to the dramatic collapse of traditionally ‘female’ professions, like teaching and literature studies.

“Women tend to observe degree-level studies more than men, and they test better in certain types of exams,” he said.

“So when law suddenly became an attractive profession in recent years, it automatically became a woman’s field.”

The figures are truly astounding. Ten years earlier, the percentage of women lawyers in Cyprus was about 39 per cent. It kept rising, year-on-year, until it finally broke the 50 per cent mark in 2014. And it rose further the next year when 390 out of the 490 new lawyers registered were women.

“Right now, the law department at the University of Cyprus has 195 undergraduate law students, representing the intake of the last four years, of whom 82 per cent are females,” said Professor Andreas Kapardis, head of the department.

This trajectory follows an international trend of women outnumbering men in law – with a noted, if glass, ceiling that appears to slash their career-advancement prospects in half.

“I don’t think the ‘glass ceiling’ is as hard as it used to be,” Vassiliou said.

“Nowadays we have many female judges, and we have three or four women sitting on the Supreme Court, which is the highest you can go. Of course, it’s a different story in private law firms, but that’s mainly because most of them are family-business settings, not conducive to an outsider building a career.”

Even so, the trend in nations like the US and the UK has been observed over a period of 30 years – Cyprus seems to have zipped to parity in less than 10.

“Much of that is down to the existence of many law schools in Cyprus – not to mention the Greek and English universities,” Hadjimihail said.

“Also, traditionally attractive professions, such as teaching, have lost much of their shine during this period. And of course, we in Cyprus have failed to foster a ‘study what you like’ attitude, instead focusing on degrees that guarantee employment and benefits.”

Even more incredibly, the number of lawyers in Cyprus has risen steadily, even as the number of law firms in Cyprus went the opposite way. Law firms registered in Cyprus have gone down from 661 in 2008 to 514 in 2015 – a 22 per cent drop. In contrast, the number of lawyers registered with the Cyprus Bar Association during the same period has gone up 68 per cent – from 1,781 to 2,994.

This is partly explained by the fact that women tend to go after law-related jobs – but not necessarily as lawyers – but the main reason is the expansion of the services sector in Cyprus over the last two decades. As the economy became more service-oriented, especially in the field of financial services, the legal profession started being in demand to accommodate the needs of expanding financial-services firms. Today, many lawyers are employed in non-law firm settings.

But contrary to conventional wisdom, Cyprus has not exactly been teeming with lawyers – though this pattern is fast changing. A 2012 study by Professor George Yarrow and Dr Christopher Decker for the Regulatory Policy Institute (RPI), funded by the CCBE, found that, while the country’s number of lawyers per 1,000 population – 2.24 – was significantly higher than the EU’s average of 1.80, it ranked the island ninth across the EU. Unofficial data shows that, since 2008, the average number of lawyers in Cyprus per 1,000 population has spiked to 3.53. By way of comparison, the United States, with a 3.82 average in 2008, showed a 4.06 average last year.

“If you look at the history of the legal profession in Cyprus, there has been an overarching effort to keep new practitioners out,” Hadjimihail said.

“So when barriers were lifted around 10 years ago and it became easier to enter, we went to the other extreme. Of course, it’s a bubble, and at some point it’s going to burst. That’s why options like higher licensing fees are being looked at – to help desaturate the field.”

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