Black Lawyers Association strengthens relations with the National Bar Association

August 29th, 2016

By Lutendo Sigogo

The National Bar Association (NBA) is the oldest and largest bar of African-American Attorneys, legal students and judges in the United States of America (US), with a membership of over 60 000. It was established in 1925 when some African-American lawyers were denied membership in the American Bar Association (ABA).

In the week of 16 to 22 July 2016, the NBA hosted its 91st Convention under the leadership of NBA President, Benjamin Lloyd Crump. Mr Crump was one of the delegates who attended the NBA international affiliates meeting in South Africa (SA) in May 2015. He was the then President-Elect, and this delegation was led by President Pamela Meanes, the 72nd NBA President.

The relationship between the BLA and NBA dates back to the Apartheid era. The NBA assisted in establishing the Black Lawyers Association – Legal Education Trust, which is commonly known as the Legal Education Centre (BLA-LEC), in the mid-1980s. The purpose of the BLA-LEC was to empower the SA black lawyers who did not get much assistance from the statutory law societies and Association of Law Societies. The BLA-LEC also established litigation centres throughout the country. These centres in conjunction with the BLA-LEC played a vital role in representing the interests of the disadvantaged people, mainly those who were arrested or harassed by the security agencies for their stance against the Apartheid regime. The first director of the BLA-LEC was the late Godfrey Pitje (see news ‘Founding President of the Black Lawyers Association honored’ 2015 (Nov) DR 6).

Over the years BLA delegations, led by BLA Presidents, attended the NBA Convention in the US. This year a delegation of ten BLA members, led by President of the BLA, Lutendo Sigogo, attended the NBA Convention, which was held at St Louis, Missouri. The high number of the delegation to the convention came as a result of the sterling work and call by the NBA life members and stalwarts, Leroy Wilson Jr, Herbert Moreira-Brown and Donald Watson who attended the BLA annual general meeting (AGM) in October 2015 (see AGM news ‘BLA AGM: Black lawyers can handle complex matters’ 2015 (Dec) DR 6). The three emphasised the need to revitalise the relationship between the two organisations and place it on the next level of mutual respect and benefit in terms of sharing of common experiences and points of divergence.

NBA members were thrilled by the size of the BLA delegation and undertook to attend the BLA AGM during October in Kimberley. BLA members were warmly welcomed at the convention and felt at home with the hospitable treatment afforded to them throughout the convention. They constituted the majority of the affiliate members out of the US.

The business of the convention is regarded as a national affair. The official opening of the convention was preceded by ‘colours of change’ hosted by the St Louis Metropolitan Police Department and the singing of the National Anthem as well as ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’.  Members of the judiciary received a standing procession in their welcome. The convention showcased the professionalism in the legal profession.

The convention’s two main functions are to execute the business of the AGM. Where the Executive Committee accounts to the general membership of the activities, which they undertook and those which they plan to fulfil in the future. The review of the year that was by the president, as well as the election of the new leadership; and the presentation of various mandatory Continuing Legal Education (CLE) seminars. Members who attend the CLE seminars are credited points as a prerequisite of their continued registration as lawyers.

The manner in which the NBA CLE Committee arranges and presents seminars is something which should be looked at in SA. In the future all South African legal practitioners will, in terms of ss 5 and 6 of the Legal Practice Act 28 of 2014 (LPA), be required to attend compulsory Post-Qualification Professional Development (PPD) to earn points for them to continue to practice. In this regard, the BLA found the convention to be highly informative and showcased model organisations such as the BLA, through its Legal Education Centre, can remain relatable to the profession and empowering to its members and the profession at large. The BLA may apply to be accredited by the Legal Practice Council to provide PPD in terms of s 6(5)(g) of the LPA to benefit its members and the profession in general. Accreditation of BLA will strengthen the relationship with the NBA even more, as both BLA and NBA members may get PPD or CPD points in attending each other’s CLE seminars during AGMs. As a result there will be more value for members of the two organisations in attending each other’s events and thereby bolster the relationship between the two.

The week long convention hosted a total of just over 60 seminars. These seminars were lined up in such a way that each and every attendee could attend a maximum of four seminars per day depending on the area of participant’s practice. The NBA has about 24 permanent and ad hoc divisions ranging from government lawyers, Judicial Council (taking into account that NBA membership also includes judges), law professors, in-house counsel, small firms/solo, female lawyers, young lawyers, law students and labour and employment law lawyers, to name a few. Almost all the fields of practice were covered in the seminars. For example, judges held their own seminars under topics such as –

  • judging while black: An analytical, statistical and anecdotal examination of the black judicial experience; and
  • crisis of confidence in the courts: What can judges do?

Topics of seminars are proposed by the CLE committee and at times are adopted through advice by members or by presenters.

Resolutions and motions are presented by the chairpersons of the resolutions and motions committees. There was a first reading of the resolutions and motions at the opening plenary session and the second reading at the closing session. After the second reading, the motions and resolutions were debated and adopted.

The highlight of the convention was the recollection and reflection of the ‘criminal case of the 20th century’, the OJ Simpson trial, 20 years after the trial. The session was moderated by Joey Jackson, the CNN legal analyst and criminal defence attorney. The presenter was attorney, Carl Douglas, Esq, member of the OJ Simpson legal ‘dream team’. Mr Douglas emphasised that the American Constitution was the winner in that case because the false evidence planted by the police was exposed and was not accepted by the court. Mr Douglas presented details and shared his insight to the strategies used by the ‘dream team’ during the trial.

The other highlight was the issue of police brutality and killings of black males. The convention condemned killings of police and by police. This subject reached climax on Wednesday when the President of the NBA hosted Mothers of the Movement symposium under the theme ‘Transforming tragedy into triumph in and out of the courtroom.’ The symposium was preceded by the emotive visit to the scene where Michael Brown was killed and his memorial site. The mothers of the police victims, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Michael Brown, Robbie Tolan and Clinton Allen, spoke of the pain they endured as a result of the killing of their sons and how they expect the public to support them. They emphasised that the deaths of their sons should never be in vain and that people should stand-up together and fight the continued injustice by voicing their concerns and also by taking positive actions. They said this can be done through registering to vote and to vote in all elections, from local to presidential. They spoke about the meaning of being a mother of a black son in America today. The moderators of this symposium were Ed Gordon, a journalist and television host and Mr Crump. Reverend Jesse Jackson was among the attendees, he led the convention in prayer and called for a stop in the violence and killing of black children.

The theme, which was a topical discussion to the BLA members, was ‘doing business in emerging markets’. The panellist for this seminar was Kendal Tyre, Esq and moderated by Vicky McPherson, Esq. Discussions in this seminar focussed on Africa as an emerging market. Emphasis was placed on the gateways to the economic communities in their regions. During the discussion, BLA members emphasised that when US law firms do business with SA firms, in their due diligence, they must look out for possible fronting so that they may partner with firms, which empower black practitioners rather than those that use them for window dressing for the sake of compliance with the Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment legislation. It was further emphasised that when instructing South African law firms, such firms must also twin or do work with small black law firms so that there may be skills transfer, empowerment and gaining of appropriate experience. The International Law Forum of the NBA welcomed developments in SA particularly in respect of prospects for their members to have opportunities to be admitted and enrolled as legal practitioners in SA in terms of s 24(3) of the LPA. The International Law Forum division undertook to develop rules of engagement in this matter. These rules will include, but not limited to, requesting big law firms to enter into joint ventures with small law firms and encourage coaching and mentorship with observable deliverable outcomes.

This convention also made us realise that black legal practitioners in America are facing, to some extent, similar challenges as those faced by black legal practitioners in SA, in terms of access to lucrative legal work. What, however, makes our situation more untenable is that black people in our country are in the majority whereas in the US they are the minority. However, the main and peculiar challenge facing the African-Americans is discrimination meted out to them in a form of police brutality wherein a number of them are being killed by police under questionable circumstances.

The other lesson that may be learnt from the NBA is how they conduct their elections. Nominated candidates are interviewed by the nominations committee to establish if they meet the minimum set requirements. Those who are found to be illegible to be voted into the office are recommended to the convention during the opening plenary session. Thereafter, the floor is opened for nominations to take place and those nominated will once again be subjected to the scrutiny of the nominations committee. If successful, their names are included in the ballot paper. This is very relevant when taking into account the provisions of s 7(2)(e) of the LPA in that a committee like the nominations committee will then assess if the LPC contestants meet the requirements espoused in the section.

During the closing session and awards banquet ceremony, President-Elect, Kevin D Judd together with the new executive committee and board members, were confirmed and sworn in as the new President and leadership of the NBA for the 2016 – 2017 term of office, respectively. Juan R Thomas was elected as the new President-Elect for the same period. It was in this session where BLA members were officially recognised and welcomed.

NBA stalwarts undertook to investigate the manner through which they can meaningfully assist in the development of the black legal practitioners in SA. This convention positively assisted in strengthening the relationship between BLA and NBA. We believe that this relationship will continue to grow.

The 2017 NBA Convention shall be held in Toronto, Canada.

The following BLA members attended the convention: Lutendo Sigogo; Mike Chauke; Penelope Magona; Mafori Edward Lesufi; Mashudu Netshitungulu; Zintle Ngogodo; Stanley Boikanyo; Melatong Ramushu; Velile Tinto; and Siya Wotshela.

Lutendo Sigogo, President of the Black Lawyers Association

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2016 (Sept) DR 5.