Lawyer believes the rules are hers to mould

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Maria Mbeneka
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She wears many hats. Outside of being an Advocate of the High Court, Maria Mbeneka is also the Vice President of the East Africa Law Society, LSK Council Member, Chair Ghetto Radio, Mother, wife and First Lady Laikipia County. She loves the outdoors – walking, running, hiking. Out of legal text, she voraciously consumes fiction, where she has a bias for African writers. Nigerian Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is her ‘absolute favourite’. She is currently reading Gregory David Roberts’ Shantaram. She always knew she’d be a lawyer, and set about preparing for that calling from a young age. She admired the great lawyers of the Second Liberation, but it was the S.M. Otieno case that sold her to the trade. She is effusive about the influence, work and times James Orengo, Njeri Kabeberi, Maina Kiai and Professor Kivutha Kibwana – whom, she says, shared some invaluable insights just as she headed out to university. We wanted a full length interview, but she had to be somewhere, so we settled for a one-touch, quick-fire model. She spoke with Kevin Motaroki

How do you measure victory?

Before I set out to do something, I try and work out the end result, and the key factors that will get me there. If the outcome looks like the vision I had in the beginning, then I know that it’s a success.

Are you fundamentally good?

That’s a difficult question…

You are a smart woman…

(Laughs) Thanks. Well, I don’t know… Human suffering breaks me. If I can find a solution, I will.

Was law a calling, or something you got into because you qualified?

It was a dream career for me; it still is. Passion is everything. Without it, you can only go so far.

How do you develop professional relationships effectively?

By seeking out networks that compliment your profession, keeping up with developments in your area of interest, as well as listening to old hands and respecting professional boundaries.

Who is your typical client?

I have corporate and individual clients. Commercial law, intellectual property and conveyancing take up a large percentage of my expertise. I also offer pro bono legal services and sit on boards.

What is your philosophy to winning or prosecuting a case?

Easy: be in it to win it.

It would appear that most lawyers struggle to have a life outside of the office, especially in their starting years. Must one drive oneself into the ground to make it?

No. Clients are to be found everywhere, in different networks. Develop social interests that will add value to your practice.

A lawyer’s practical duties, like writing a complaint or conducting a client interview, seem absent in law school curriculum. Is it the best approach that lawyers are supposed to learn these skills on the job?

It may not be an ideal situation, but pupillage teaches basic administrative work, which is important. One gathers a lot of knowledge during pupillage, although the extent to which this happens will depend on the particular firm. A lot of what makes one a good lawyer is experience. One needs some skin in the game to really become confident as lawyer.

Did you find the kind of law you wanted to practice?

Definitely! Intellectual Property law. This happened when I served as a member of the Industrial Property Tribunal for three years. Commercial law became a second love during my formative years of pupillage and practice.

Is there anything you wished you would have done differently in law school that you did not realise until you began practice?

No.

That simple?

That simple.

Do you think advocates are well remunerated in Kenya?

It’s a multi-faceted conversation. Pay varies depending on the law firm or sector. We have advocates who are in-house counsel, others in government and private commercial entities.

What do you think about legal aid? Should clients have to pay for every service in all circumstances?

Aid is necessary. Every advocate should assign some of their time to providing legal aid.

Do you see a bias against people who attend law school later in life?

No. That would be very discriminatory, and I abhor discrimination of any kind.

Have you ever misjudged someone? How did it affect your attitude once you realised it?

I have, yes. I was pleasantly surprised once I gave the person a second chance to prove themselves.

Tell me about money and the ability to actually practice law. As a woman, is it a good idea to get married and start a family before your career has been established?

There are no hard and fast rules. Some people want to follow a certain formula where others prefer to focus on their careers first. What works for Alice will not work for Angela. In professional paths, the rules are ours to mould.

Now, your profession should have monetary value, for nobody sets out to work for nothing. However, the willingness to grow and learn may mean you earn less in the beginning as you polish your skills to enable you scale the profession to the point where you won’t have to haggle over fees.

What is your philosophy on life and living?

“Wherever you are be all there” – J.S. Elliot

Do you think you have peaked?

Peaked?! I’m just getting started!

Would you recommend legal dramas to students of law?

Absolutely. I watched LA Law and The Practice when I was younger. They provide an array of legal scenarios, all very intense and relevant.

How do you balance your hunger for study with a full-time job, family, and other necessities of life?

Planning and being deliberate about what I want. It helps that I have a very good support system both at home and at work.

How do you react if you found someone you work with closely dislikes you?

I accept and move on. In work there shouldn’t be anything personal.

What would/do your peers say about you?

(Ponders) I wonder. (Laughs) Hopefully that I’m good company at the very worst.

Is there a time you felt you dealt with a situation inadequately? How did that change you?

I think this happens to everyone… doesn’t it? When it does for me, I change tack and dedicate more time to working it out.

How do you get the best out of people?

By acknowledging their efforts and giving them an opportunity to deliver.

Rank these in the order of importance: power, health, status, wealth…

You forgot family!

(Guiltily) And family…

Well, so, family, health, wealth, power, and status.

What is the most profound book you ever read?

The winner stands alone by Paulo Coelho.(

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