For LL.M. student Wejdan Alhaid, studying corporate law is her own business.
As a young woman growing up in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s capital and most populous city, Fordham Law School LL.M. student Wejdan Alhaid often questioned why certain societal rules defined how people lived, communicated, and interacted. “It’s the law” was the common, unsatisfactory refrain she received. The nebulous response failed to quell her innate curiosity.
“I said to myself, ‘Why not study it?’ and get deep into how laws start and why, and the reason small words have all this power over people,” Alhaid says. “Of course, without getting the education and learning the law, I wouldn’t be able to find these answers.”
Alhaid’s interest in legal education arose, fortuitously, at a time when reforms opened new pathways for Saudi women to participate in the legal system. She enrolled in the prestigious King Saud University in 2008—the same year the inaugural group of Saudi women graduated with law degrees. Her graduation in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in law came one year before the country granted women licenses to practice law in court. Legal career options were vague when she started school, she notes, but her studies file no time to mull over uncertainty.
Five years later, Alhaid persists in pushing the boundaries of what Saudi women can aspire to do with the law. In a culture where women lawyers generally focus on family law, Alhaid’s LL.M. concentration of banking, corporate, and financial law will position her as a kind of pioneer in Riyadh, the kingdom’s financial center and home to more than five million residents.
“We still don’t have enough female corporate professors and lawyers,” Alhaid says of her native Saudi Arabia. “I chose corporate law because of the deficiency in that field, and to prove that the corporate field isn’t only for men. Women can also be successful in it.”
Alhaid worked as a corporate lawyer in Riyadh for her first two years after graduation.
During this time, she also served 150 pro bono hours for women who could not afford attorney’s fees. In September 2014, she left corporate practice to become a teacher’s assistant at King Saud University. This career move ultimately put her on the path to the United States. An LL.M. and S.J.D. are necessary to become a law professor at King Saud University—a job title Alhaid aspires to once she completes her Fordham education.
Alhaid’s friend Yusra Alshanqityi, a Saudi native who is currently an S.J.D. candidate at Fordham Law, recommended she attend the School to gain a thorough understanding of American corporate law. “From the first day at orientation, I remember they told us we’re here as family,” Alhaid says. “I felt that sense from the first day, that Fordham was not just a school but a family for its students.”
Corporate law does not vary widely between the United States and Saudi Arabia, Alhaid says, but absorbing the differences between common law here and the civil law system back home has proven to be a challenge. Alhaid, who interned this summer for New York County Supreme Court Justice Charles E. Ramos, remarks that the courtroom experience is very different in the two countries. The American civil system moves cases along more expediently, and allows observers to sit in court. In Saudi Arabia, even though the law says cases are open, it can be difficult for anyone other than the defendant or plaintiff to gain admittance, she notes. Providing more opportunities to sit in court could encourage more students to study law, she contends.
Alhaid is the first person from her family to study or practice law. Her parents, she says, have supported her decision to study the law, but many in her family and in Saudi society disagree with her, or other Saudi citizens, studying the law in America.
“For starters, some of the society disagrees with the whole idea of women getting into the legal field,” she explains. “In addition, they don’t accept the idea of studying, practicing, or living abroad and being independent, especially when a woman is unmarried. I don’t like to pay attention to this nonsense, because it’s not related to religion, and it’s merely tradition.”
The government’s approach has been quite different, Alhaid continues, noting women are receiving an “equal chance” to study law as men in 2017. Young Saudi men and women are pursuing legal careers in greater numbers, she adds, calling the vocation “trendy” among her peers. At the moment, her colleagues are returning with high legal degrees from the U.S., the U.K., Australia, and other countries to fill the shortage of lawyers and law professors.
“Lawyers are becoming very active in educating society, and the people are becoming more aware of their rights,” she says, noting this combination of education and awareness is driving increased interest in the profession. Ironically, she cites American legal dramas as a source of her fascination with the law. Her favorites include TV shows such as Suits and The Good Wife, movies such as Conviction and The Lincoln Lawyer, and the Harper Lee classic To Kill A Mockingbird.
Such fictional portrayals of the law piqued Alhaid’s desire to drill beneath vague legal pronouncements of her native country. She intends to continue her S.J.D. studies at Fordham, if possible, and when her doctorate is complete, return to Saudi Arabia. She is optimistic that the role of and acceptance of women in the legal realm will continue to grow, and she is eager to use her real-life experiences and enhanced knowledge of American laws and courts to assist in the empowerment of her fellow citizens.
“I hope one day we’ll see female lawyers, scholars, and professors participating on the same side as the men in doing regulations and laws, and that they will be involved as a dynamic part in the creation of justice and fairness in the society,” Alhaid says.