Interview Segment — October — featuring Mokshini Jayamanne
Here, we reach out to people who will reflect on the theme and share their insights as to how it relates to their lives and work.
This month YFN reached out to Mokshini Jayamanne, who shared her thoughts on the intersection of Feminism and Law, as well as an insight into her experience in the legal field as an Attorney-at-Law! Read a short Bio on Mokshini, after the questions!
- What made you choose to become a lawyer?
I am a third-generation lawyer. For many people, it was a given that I would take to law, both because of my background and because I had the gift of the gab (I was told that I was an extremely opinionated child and never shied away from an argument). But because I was rebellious, I resisted the idea that I should become a lawyer just because that was the assumption. I was adamant to pick a career that was my own and not one that others had decided for me. This is part of the reason why I even chose the physical sciences stream for my A’ Levels! But, after my Advanced Levels, though, when I was looking at various options and fields of study, I realized that the law is actually quite intriguing and a career as a practicing lawyer would fit my personality and skill set. I also have a strong passion to help and serve people, partly because growing up Christian, the concept of giving one’s self in the service of others was deeply instilled within me and, even today, it is the driving force behind what I strive to do as a lawyer: serve. So after a while, I succumbed to law, and eventually, fell head over heels in love with it! Now I would have to say that this is my calling. No matter how many times I’ve considered other careers, I just can’t shake the feeling that this is where I’m meant to be.
- How have your principles and personal politics shaped the way you approach a case?
Well, I’ve been doing this for 15 years now and I can honestly say how I was brought up as a child influences the way I approach my work. Growing up, the importance of empathy, honesty, and hard work was drilled into my psyche. When it comes to advising clients, I try to strike the right balance between empathizing with him/her but remaining objective at all times. It isn’t easy, but I am becoming better at it and I find that you can’t have one without the other! I’ve also learnt that honesty is an invaluable commodity in this job. Your integrity is currency. You see, a lawyers’ career is closely entwined with his/her reputation. If you allow yourself to be deemed a liar, whether it be in your dealings with your client, in your pleadings, your submissions in court or when discussing a settlement, perhaps, with opposing counsel — your word matters. If you’re caught misrepresenting to the judge or your opposing counsel or your client, there really is no coming back from something like that.
Finally, there really is no substitute for hard work. This job is a test match, not a T20. You really have to put your head down and work, work, work. We see many professionals ostensibly reaching the pinnacles of their careers very early on. I say ‘ostensibly’, because, it isn’t real. It is what social media leads us to believe. The best lawyers aren’t the ones you see on social media. They are the ones who show up every day for their clients, quietly celebrate the little wins, but use the losses to improve their game. It is discouraging sometimes to see social media being manipulated by certain players to get an edge over others in this extremely competitive arena, but, the best way to attract clientele is by being the best in your game, not by portraying someone who is. Sorry for using so many cricketing metaphors but, there is a saying my father-in-law who is a cricket coach uses — answer with the bat ie. prove yourself in the field. It is also essential to be committed to your craft. I try to remain teachable, all the time. It doesn’t matter if it is a senior or junior, I believe there is always something to learn from my colleagues. So I am always trying to expand my knowledge of the law, by reading new judgments, watching other lawyers in court, availing of the continuing professional development endeavors of the BASL — like the webinar series which is such an invaluable asset, and so on. The law is a dynamic subject, so there really is no room to rest on your laurels. You can be a rockstar in court today but make a fool of yourself tomorrow if you don’t bring you’re ‘A Game’, ALL THE TIME. Having said that, I do take time for myself. My physical, mental and emotional health are important to me. I make time for myself and for the people I care about. My faith, my family, my friends: these keep me humane and grounded.
- This profession is known to be very aggressive, demeaning, and highly patriarchal by our society. What were the biggest challenges you faced, specifically as a woman, in your Legal career, and what kept you going?
To me, the biggest challenge is the misconception that being a counsel is a man’s job, not a woman’s. You see, historically, women were excluded from the practice of law well into the 20th century. Even in SL, it was only in 1933 when The Sex Disqualification Removal (Legal Profession) Ordinance was passed that women were allowed to enter the profession. Because women were excluded from law for such a long period during the early years, much of what is in the law, how it is practiced, how it is enforced is governed by what men of the era deemed fit. There is a sense of ‘male-ness’ that is associated with the law which pervades the practice of it, to this day. Not just in SL but all over the world. Because ‘lawyering’ is a male construct — ideas surrounding good lawyering revolve around very male characteristics. There is a stereotype that comes to mind when anyone thinks of a lawyer: and it is always a male. For example, law is supposed to be rational and objective, like men, not irrational and subjective like women. So much so that, by virtue of simply being a man — it is far less tedious to set up your own practice, than it is for a woman.
You used the word ‘demeaning’ when describing the profession in Sri Lanka. I have to say that, the profession has been kind to me to some extent, because of the backing I got from my seniors. But, nonetheless, my career (which is still in its formative stages, I feel) has not been impervious to the challenges women counsel face. To me what has been most demeaning is when some of your male counterparts themselves try to propagate the notion that the courtroom is a man’s turf. For instance, when you’re one of very few women in court and you have to endure snide remarks, sexist jokes or overly patronizing comments — all whilst fighting your case, you really begin to question whether it is all worth it. What kept me going? I have to say, my husband and a strong sense of calling. Ayendra has been my biggest cheerleader and a constant source of strength. He is a practicing lawyer himself, and knows all too well the ins and outs of this profession. Don’t get me wrong, I am a fighter — but even the best fighters have moments of doubt. In those moments having someone in your corner, reminding you why you picked this career in the first place, really helps. I am so grateful he has convinced me on so many occasions not to give up. Besides, giving up would only endorse the nay-sayers, and we can’t have that now, can we? I must say, though, that I have found that men are becoming more supportive of their female colleagues. There still are a few true gentlemen left in the profession!
- What do you believe, as per your personal opinion and experience, that our legal system lacks, as facilitators of justice to people seeking it?
Sri Lanka inherited the laws introduced to her by her colonial masters, centuries ago. Whilst the imperialists have long since moved on from those laws, we still cling on to them and guard them religiously. I believe our laws are in dire need of reform and am so pleased with the genuine efforts being made to do just that. But laws are just one aspect of the system of administration of justice in any jurisdiction. There is also the machinery of justice and the infrastructure supporting and facilitating the dispensation of justice. This pandemic has really exposed some of the pre-existing issues faced by litigants when trying to access justice. Whether it be due process, laws’ delays, equal access to justice, Covid-19 has exacerbated the problems we always had and really opened our eyes to the glaring defects in the system. But, again, it is heartening to see the officers of court, honourable judges and lawyers trying to find solutions to these issues. They say adversity is the best teacher and it does look like Covid-19 is the teacher we were all waiting for.
- Best piece of advice you can provide to girls/ women who want to pursue their career as Lawyers in Sri Lanka.
Dig your heels in and let the world know you’re here to stay. Your presence alone, is an act of defiance. However, your presence alone won’t suffice. Hard work is essential. It will pay off. The harder you work, the better you will get at your job. The better you get at your job, the more successful you’ll be in your cases. But your success is not an end in itself, because the more successful you get, you’ll find that you’re breaking gender stereotypes within the profession and by it, paving the way for more women to follow suit. You’ll find that you’re advocating for greater representation of women in litigation, by being good at what you do. Finally, even when it seems futile, and you’re tempted to take a short cut, resist it. Reaching the pinnacle will mean nothing if you’re integrity doesn’t follow you there. Find ‘your people’: the ones who stay by your side, remind you of all that’s good and right in the profession and egg you on in your pursuit of justice for your clients.
Mokshini Jayamanne counts almost 15 years in active practice in the private bar, in the areas of family law (divorce, custody, guardianship, adoption), money recovery, land disputes, testamentary matters, civil appeals and administrative law. Mokshini has been an active member of the Bar Council for over a decade and has held positions of leadership in the Bar Association of Sri Lanka, she is currently Co-Chairperson of the Women’s Committee of the BASL. Mokshini, is a member of the Committee for the Review of Civil Law appointed by the Ministry of Justice, and as an extension of this role, has been appointed as the Convenor of the Advisory Committee on Family Law Reform. She has been the host of Channel Eye’s ‘Law and Order’ TV show and is a Speech and Drama teacher with over 20 years of experience. She recently established StoryLandSL as a medium of storytelling to facilitate creativity in children, whilst enhancing their language skills and promoting wholesome values.