Transformation of the legal profession is not only an economic and moral imperative but the maintenance of the rule of law is dependent on transforming the legal profession. Currently a little over a quarter of the country’s attorneys are black, even though approximately 88% of South Africa’s population is black. If law firms are destined to achieve success and gain strength through diversity, this can only be achieved by skills being transferred to black lawyers by proper mentoring and training. Skills transfer will ensure that a bigger pool of black lawyers develops the expertise that is necessary to take up judicial appointments.
Without a transformed judiciary, the majority of our population will have little faith in the justice system. Law firms can play an instrumental role in the transformation of the judiciary, by ensuring that black lawyers are exposed to quality work and that the necessary skills transfer is occurring.
Unfortunately for many years in South Africa, the bulk of black lawyers served individual clients while the institutional clients were serviced by white lawyers. Consequently many black lawyers developed little commercial legal experience. Fortunately this is beginning to change and a greater number of black lawyers are being exposed to challenging, quality commercial and governmental work. The large law firms, which have an impressive client base and the infrastructure to train and mentor young lawyers, are employing more and more black candidate attorneys. The challenge that remains for these firms is to ensure that these candidate attorneys do not, after qualification turn their backs on the profession. The commercial reality is that black lawyers with skills and expertise are a precious resource. Commerce and the major law firms are competing for the same pool of black lawyers. Unless young black lawyers are satisfied that they are being given equal opportunities to succeed and develop, the major law firms will struggle to retain them.
When I was still an inexperienced young black lawyer, I was fortunate to be paired with an experienced attorney who treated me as a colleague, spent a significant amount of time on training and mentoring me, who appreciated my input and who exposed me to his clients and to quality commercial litigation work. As a result I have managed to develop an independent commercial litigation practice which has allowed me and my firm to measure my capability and more importantly allowed me to meet the criteria necessary to be invited as a shareholder in the firm.
Even though apartheid was dismantled more than ten years ago, we must not lose sight of the fact that many black law graduates only had access to an inferior quality of education where English was not a first language. Furthermore, many young law graduates are at a disadvantage because their family environment has not exposed them to the commercial world. It is the recognition of these imbalances and a concerted effort to level the playing fields that will contribute to the successful training and mentoring of young black lawyers and more importantly their retention in the profession.
Transformation of law firms has been described as transformation in the true sense because, in terms of legislation, a partner/shareholder in a law firm has to be an admitted attorney. In other words a black empowered company cannot be invited to become a partner/shareholder in a law firm to change the profile of the firm and to achieve the diversity much sought after by the market. In the light of this, the need to provide equal opportunities to work, training and mentoring and the transfer of skills cannot be overstated. Without a focused mentoring programme, large firms are not going to transform and will lose out on the opportunity of adding value to clients by offering a team of people from diverse backgrounds to deliver solutions.
At Deneys Reitz we have made some strides in the sense that we currently employ 63 black professionals and we have 12 black directors. Notwithstanding the challenges faced by the large law firms in retaining black professionals, I take comfort from the fact that most of the firm’s black directors have been trained in house and have progressed through the firm’s structures. The process of transformation at the firm is, however, nowhere near completion. But I remain optimistic that if young black lawyers coming through the firm’s structures are given the same opportunities I was given and are properly trained and mentored, Deneys Reitz will become a truly South African law firm.
The distribution of work by institutional clients to black firms must be encouraged, but the fact that black attorneys in the large law firms were also disadvantaged and should also benefit from empowerment initiatives should not be overlooked. The large law firms have the resources and the infrastructure to train black attorneys. But if the black attorneys at these firms are not supported by institutional clients, there will be no incentive for the black attorneys to remain with the traditional large law firms and this will perpetuate segregation between black and white attorneys and we will not move away from the notions of black and white firms. Institutional support for black attorneys at the large law firms will promote the success of black attorneys at these firms and will accelerate the transformation of the traditional large white law firms.
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