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Breaking barriers

Reflections on being among the first wave of Saudi women lawyers

Waad Alkurini, a project finance lawyer in our Riyadh office, doesn't see herself as a pioneer. "That's a tough job to take on your shoulders," she says. But Alkurini launched her legal career at a time when women in Saudi Arabia were forbidden to officially practice law. She recalls that in 2012, after graduating with a law degree, "I was a lawyer, but not really a lawyer." Women, who were called "service providers" or "agents," were not allowed to go to court, attend hearings or represent clients, and were restricted to transactional work.

But the law changed about six years ago, allowing women to practice law. Recently, Alkurini shared her thoughts on being part of the first wave of licensed Saudi women lawyers, finding role models and supporting other women. A condensed version of that conversation follows.

Why did you pursue a legal career knowing you couldn't practice?

I didn't really think about it when I started studying law. I found the subject interesting. And since studying law was an option available to me, in the back of my mind I thought there must be a career path. While I'd never seen women practicing law in real life, I had seen them practicing and litigating on TV shows ever since I was a kid. But as graduation approached, I started worrying about what I was going to do. I didn't want just any job. I'd studied for five years, and wanted something related to my degree.

How did you navigate this challenge?

A legal internship was required to graduate so I approached law firms. I didn't have many options. The two law firms I met with were only accepting two female interns per semester. Luckily, I got an offer from one firm, did the internship, and learned a lot. Still, knowing that I wasn't going to get a license bothered me. After that, while working as a trainee associate at a second firm, I decided to apply to LLM programs in the United States. I wanted to qualify in New York so I'd have options if I didn't get the Saudi qualification. I was admitted to the University of Chicago, and by then things had started changing for Saudi women.

What was it like to be one of the first licensed Saudi women lawyers?

Just because a law passed that said women could start practicing officially as lawyers, didn't mean the market would accept us. Some judges were not happy with women representing clients, and would ask them to leave the courtroom. At the same time, certain judges supported us and would report this behavior. But the fact that you had to go to court and know in the back of your mind that you might get kicked out was not okay. Even today women can face issues with certain governmental entities, judges or very senior male lawyers. But we've seen rapid change since 2012.

How did you handle situations where you weren't treated as a professional?

My only options were to quit or continue doing what I was doing and hope for the best. So, I ignored it and moved forward, focusing on working hard, taking whatever I could from every experience and delivering as much as possible.

Did you have any role models?

Being one of the first women throughout my career was difficult because I had no relatable senior female figures to guide me. The only people I looked up to were the male partners and senior associates I worked with. They acted as mentors, and supported me as much as they could. Now, working at White & Case, I can reach out to any female partner or senior associate. Sometimes it's helpful to talk to partners who experienced similar situations when they started.

What are your thoughts on helping more junior women?

It's a huge responsibility. When junior female associates approach me, I try to tell them whatever I can to support them based on my experience. It's tough because I don't have any external knowledge other than what I went through. But I definitely think it's easier now for the younger generation of women to find relatable figures, whether at work or in the legal industry in general, who they can approach for advice and guidance.

Do you have advice for women just starting their legal careers?

I think good lawyers go through ups and downs in terms of confidence. When I walk into meetings and I'm the only woman, and sometimes the most junior person, it's kind of intimidating. But I've overcome that by making sure I know what I'm going to talk about and by always considering myself an equal. A lot is changing, and I think it's important to celebrate how far women have come.