Clutching her new advocate’s gown, Gayatri Singh hurried down the second floor corridor of the Bombay High Court when it reopened in the second week of June. Singh, 60, a prominent human rights lawyer, had in May been named one of the court’s senior advocates, a prestigious designation handed out to a handful of lawyers by high courts across the country every year, signalled by a distinctive gown similar to what judges wear.

When the Bombay High Court list was issued, Singh become the only woman of seven who had been designated a senior. Last year, just one woman was designated alongside 21 men, after an eight-year gap.

Supreme Court records show that just five women were nominated as seniors between 1966 and 2012, of the 300-plus club of seniors. In 2013, three more women made it to the list, followed by another woman in 2014 and three more in May this year. Similarly, the Delhi High Court has less than 10 women seniors.

Although the total number of women practising is hard to ascertain, many feel the ratio of those women lawyers becoming seniors is lower than for men.

“It’s surprising,” said Singh, who has been practising for more than 20 years. “The figures are disproportionate. But I don’t know why that might be the case.”

The Allahabad High Court, for instance, has only one senior woman counsel, according to senior advocate Abdul Alam, 59, a veteran of 30 years. The situation is not significantly different in South India: the Madras High Court has just four senior women lawyers, including Nalini Chidambaram, the former union minister’s wife.

“The number of women seniors is clearly disproportionate to the number at the bar,” said Rebecca John, 50, a senior at the Delhi high court. “It's also disproportionate if you look at talent. It's a sad comment on the justice system."

No shortage of talent

The requirements vary slightly across the different high courts, but largely require a certain minimum number of years of experience, a minimum age, in some cases a recommendation, and an appearance in a certain number of "reported" judgements. The selection is made by the judges of the concerned court.

According to the Advocates Act, 1961: “An advocate may, with his consent, be designated as senior advocate if the Supreme Court or a High Court is of opinion that by virtue of his ability [standing at the bar or special knowledge or experience in law] he is deserving of such distinction”.

"Not applying could be a part of the problem,” said John. “It's a vicious circle. There is a general belief that networking is required, and women tend not to do that."

Pallavi Saluja, editor of Bar and Bench, an online legal news site, said men outnumbered women in the legal profession, but that it was also possible that women preferred to be solicitors or advocates on record (as opposed to arguing in court), as this offered more flexibility.

Aside from the prestige value and status derived from the designation, senior lawyers are in a position to demand higher fees for every court appearance.

Men make the rules

“Since it is an all-boys club, it is very difficult for women to enter this club,” said Saluja, 35, referring to the networking involved. “Litigation is an especially demanding career choice and some women are often forced to choose between family and work.”

Aside from that, the legal profession, like most others, has its usual set of difficulties. “We can’t continue without a break because of things like marriage or childbirth, similar to what women in other professions face,” said K Santhakumari, 59, a Madras high court lawyer and president of the Tamil Nadu Federation of Women Lawyers.

The process of becoming a senior is itself opaque. One public interest litigation pending before the Bombay High Court has questioned the appointment process and prayed for greater transparency. Last year, a PIL was filed in the Karnataka High Court challenging the designation of 15 seniors, a matter that was later heard in the Supreme Court.

Former additional solicitor general Indira Jaising and the Bombay HC’s first woman senior, had written a letter to the Supreme Court questioning the appointment process earlier this year.

"The impression has long been growing at the bar that only relatives of seniors or those who come from particular chambers get designated,” said Jaising in her letter, according to a report in The Times of India. “What is worse, there seems to be an imbalance between caste and communities, and I can only hope that this is not conscious as that would go against the ethos of the Constitution by which we are all governed.”

She has since also filed a petition in the Supreme Court.