Female legal practitioners are least considered when legal services are sourced

December 1st, 2021

De Rebus news reporter, Kgomotso Ramotsho had the opportunity to interview, mother and daughter duo, co-founder of Molefe Dlepu Inc and former chairperson of the Legal Practice Council (LPC) and current LPC Council member, Kathleen Matolo-Dlepu and candidate legal practitioner and Executive Assistant to the directors of Molefe Dlepu Inc, Laura Morwesi Dlepu, about the legal profession and their respective careers and experiences in the legal profession.


Kgomotsto Ramotsho (KR): Briefly tell us about yourself.

Kathleen Matolo-Dlepu (KD): After my admission in 1989, Ms Ouma Rabaji-Rasethaba and I decided to open a woman-owned law firm named Rabaji Matolo Attorneys. We were later joined by Justice Zukisa Tshiqi and Ms Rabaji-Rasethaba who joined the Bar. We changed the name to Matolo Dlepu Tshiqi Attorneys, and we ambitiously opened two offices, one in Johannesburg and the other in Kempton Park. I was in the Johannesburg branch and concentrated on conveyancing and litigation and the Kempton Park office concentrated on labour law and litigation. As time went on it became challenging for us to run the two offices and we agreed that I keep the Johannesburg office nearer my home and Justice Tshiqi kept the Kempton Park office and we acted as each other’s correspondents.

In 1995, I co-founded Molefe Dlepu Inc. Both my previous partners have since become judges. We formed a women-owned firm with the purpose of giving young, qualified women graduates the chance to serve articles and mentor them. To date we have mentored more than 30 young women, some have opened their own practices, some have joined the private sector, and others have become advocates.

I am a mother of three girls, and I am the first born in a girl only family. I have always been passionate about mentoring young women as I was mentored by my mom and aunts.

Morwesi Dlepu (MD): I hold a BCom Law degree from the University of Pretoria, and I am completing my LLB. I am also one of the co-directors of the WOZA Leadership NPC, which operates under the name WOZA Leadership Academy.


KR: When did you decide to study law and why?

KD: I initially wanted to do BCom but on my arrival at Turfloop (University of the North), law appealed to me. It brought back my childhood memories when my grandparents were forcefully removed from their fertile land in Kranspoort, Limpopo without compensation and dumped on a barren plot of land. Having attended Morris Isaacson High School, every one of us was an activist and law enabled me to fight for the rights of my peers and those who were oppressed by Apartheid.

MD: I have spent my entire life observing my mother and her peer’s practice. I have seen them help communities, individuals, and companies from varying backgrounds in this country and beyond its borders. I have seen them travel the world and make connections with like-minded people. I have observed some move from practice to the Bench, and others to the corporate sector. When I learned to read, the titles of my mother’s old textbooks were some of the first words I came across in our home. HR Hahlo and Ellison Kahn The South African Law of Husband and Wife (Cape Town: Juta 1975) immediately comes to mind. I chose to study law because it was always around me, and I gravitated towards it. I had other interests, but I always circled back around to law.


KR: What do you think about the quality of law in South Africa (SA)?

KD: After 1994, everything changed for the better in SA. The South African Constitution and the entrenchment of our Bill of Rights ensures that everyone’s rights are protected.

MD: I believe the law in SA has a great amount of potential in its laws and its legal practitioners. We have started off strong with a progressive Constitution and have followed with Acts of Parliament and case law that support the ideals set out in the Constitution. There is still room for improvement; we must not forget that our young democracy emerged from a long history of inequality that must still be addressed and rectified.


KR: Do you think transformation in the legal profession is moving at a good pace or do we still have a long way to go?

KD: Transformation in the legal profession is moving at a slow pace. Black men and women are still not getting quality work. The Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Act 53 of 2003 and the generic score card does not go far in relation to the legal profession. Each profession needs a sector specific code, which could be monitored and enforced.

MD: Transformation is not moving at the pace that I believe it should. While the legal profession continues to evolve, there appears to be hesitation in understanding what transformation really means and how it should be implemented. It is an uncomfortable discussion in the legal profession but one that must take place. The demographics that make up the profession speak for themselves. We have a long way to go.


KR: In your own words, how would you describe access to justice?

KD: Legal services and the costs thereof, is beyond reach for the majority of South Africans. The black majority still do not have access to justice, especially black South African women. Everyone has a right to have a matter of dispute heard before a court of law or appropriate body, in public and on any matter or issue and everyone is equal before the law, regardless of their standing in society. Unfortunately, to the black majority more especially those in rural areas this is still a dream yet to be realised.

MD: I would describe access to justice as the ability for anyone in SA to approach a legal practitioner to get advice, to get access to our courts, or to have their legal issues remedied without being burdened by bureaucracy or exorbitant fees. I also believe access to justice includes the education of all people in SA regarding their rights and responsibilities.


KR: As a female legal practitioner, are you getting equal opportunities as your male counterparts?

KD: As I earlier indicated, female practitioners especially black women, both attorneys and advocates, are the least considered when legal services are sourced. They can hardly survive in practice. It is a constant fight. There have been many promises of intervention, but few have come to fruition. Many black female practitioners are leaving the profession because they cannot survive.

MD: There is still a bias in favour of men.


KR: What are some of the spaces that you would like to see more women occupying in the legal fraternity?

KD: Women practitioners are qualified, and some are more qualified than their male counterparts. These women just need an opportunity not only to prove themselves but to fully practice law. They are more than capable of occupying every position in the legal space, including leading this country.

MD: I would like to see women occupy all spaces in the profession. I do not think there should be any fields within legal practice that are closed off to anyone who has the knowledge and the ability to excel in that field.


KR: How has the law changed since you started? Please let me know of both the good and the bad.

KD: The law has changed for the better in SA, and the support of its Constitution has made it one of the most progressive laws in the world, but it lacks the implementation, monitoring and consequence management.

Corruption has weakened the implementation of South African laws, and a lot must be done to restore respect and faith in our laws by the majority of South Africans.


KR: How has the Legal Practice Act 28 of 2014 (the LPA) affected the way law firms were run before, has there been a change, has it been negative or positive?

KD: The LPA has not really changed how law firms are run. However, it is the regulator of all legal practitioners. Before the LPA, attorneys and advocates were regulated by different legislation, the code of conduct was not uniform. The LPA brought about uniformity of standards, the protection of the public, promoted access to justice and access to the legal profession and ensured transformation of the legal profession among others.

The LPC has come up with a Legal Sector Code compared to the Legal Sector Charter, which did not achieve anything. The status quo remained; thus we came up with the Legal Sector Code, which will be monitored by the LPC who in turn will report to the B-BBEE ICT Sector Council.


KR: How have the demographics changed since you first started? Has there been any transformation (in both gender and race)?

KD: The demographics have changed with more black female and female practitioners practising. There are more female owned firms but many close due to lack of instructions and support from the private sector and other spheres of government, state-owned enterprise (SOEs) and local government. Many black females cannot secure training and are not offered articles. The Bar Council only takes a few pupils. It is a sad situation for the young legal graduates.


KR: What is the work of the Chairperson of the LPC?

KD: The LPC derives its mandate from the LPA and is empowered to address issues of access to the legal profession, including access to justice, to come up with uniform standards and to protect the public.

To enhance education and training, facilitate the realisation of the goal of a transformed and restricted legal profession that is accountable, efficient, and independent, to ensure that fees that are charged by legal practitioner are reasonable and promote access to justice among others.


KR: What are some of the challenges you have encountered as the Chairperson of the LPC?

KD: For the first-time attorneys and advocates have had to be regulated by one legislation and restructuring the whole legal profession, which had been operating for the past 100 years and taking over the staff of the four provincial law societies that had been operating differently. Taking over the regulation of advocates who were regulated by different bar councils and coming up with standards and criteria of standards. Establishing the Provincial Councils to be aligned with the LPC and dealing with various complains from the members of the public without the Ombudsman in place have been some of the challenges that I have experienced.


KR: How did you feel being nominated to be the first Chairperson of the LPC?

KD: I felt the appointment was an endorsement for all female practitioners. At last, we [legal practitioners] were given the most important task of changing the face of the legal profession. I had to prove that women are born leaders and so far, I would like to believe that I am still on track.


KR: What was your reaction when your daughter, Morwesi, said that she wanted to study law, especially with some of the challenges you might have gone through as a black female legal practitioner?

KD: It was her choice although I had felt that she would have been a good doctor or scientist or anthropologist, as she is still fascinated by science and nature. Once she had made her choice I respected and encouraged her, and my mentorship mode kicked in. I treat her like any other female employee, and I always encourage my children to be the best they can be. No cutting corners.


KR: If you were to change anything in the legal profession, what would it be?

KD: I love my profession; however, I would love to see many women actively participating in the governing structures of the profession. Women are born leaders and SA would be a safer space if women were in power.


KR: Do you work at Molefe Dlepu Inc?

MD: I am the Executive Assistant to the directors of Molefe Dlepu Inc, and I am also part of the business development team.


KR: How is it like working in the same law firm as your mother?

MD: It has proven to be a challenge, but it has also been very enlightening. My mother holds me to a very high standard, even though my work is more administrative in nature. The experience thus far has shown me what it really takes to run a law firm.


KR: What is the biggest lesson you have learned from Mrs Dlepu, on being a good legal practitioner?

MD: I have learned that it is important to –

  • listen to your client;
  • understand the needs of your client;
  • communicate with your client in a way that they understand;
  • ask questions when you are not sure;
  • write things down; and
  • be prepared.


KR: Being in the legal profession and looking at your tertiary studies, do you think you were prepared for the practical side of the profession?

MD: Looking at my tertiary studies and what the candidate legal practitioners at Molefe Dlepu Inc have experienced, there is a gap in the level of preparedness. I do not know if it is something that can be addressed at tertiary level because institutions of higher learning may not have the resources required to give all law students basic practical training before graduating and moving on to the working world.


KR: What is the most challenging thing you have encountered since being in the legal profession, especially as a black female candidate legal practitioner?

MD: I have seen how difficult it is to acquire quality work as a 95% woman-owned firm with a staff contingent of more than 75% women. The firms has been appointed to numerous legal panels since the business development team was established and in a number of instances the period of the contract would lapse without receiving a single instruction. Black-owned and black woman-owned firms continue to be ‘window dressing’ in the name of diversity and transformation without being given the opportunity to showcase their skills.


KR: What has been your most rewarding moment in your career?

MD: As part of the business development team, it is always exciting to be appointed to a legal panel following a long tendering process. I have also successfully completed numerous short courses to broaden my knowledge. My proudest moment, however, was being appointed as a co-
director of the WOZA Leadership Academy.


KR: Is being a legal practitioner anything like you imagined it would be?

MD: It is far more challenging than my mother has made it look over the years and continues to make it look. I knew about the long hours and the continuous education, but I was not prepared for how much of a sacrifice it requires. Being a legal practitioner is not something you do for self-glorification or wealth; it truly requires a servant heart and an enormous amount of patience. It requires passion and a lot of expectation management. Even with what I know now, I am still interested in legal practice and look forward to it.


KR: You are working on some programmes with the Women in Law Awards (WOZA), tell us about the work you do with them?

MD: The inaugural Women in Law Awards that took place in 2019 exposed to the organisers the lack of diversity in the profession especially across gender lines. This prompted them to establish the WOZA Leadership Academy. The WOZA Leadership Academy aims to uplift and educate young legal practitioners, especially women, in the ‘specialised’ fields of law such as, intellectual property, tax law, and environmental law, among others. Since its establishment in 2020, the WOZA Leadership Academy has partnered with Judge Margaret Victor, SA Women Judges Making a Difference, LexisNexis, The Women in Law Initiative – Vienna, The Women in Law Initiative – Pakistan, the University of Johannesburg, Allan Gray and several legal practitioners to host different events and online seminars educating young legal practitioners on how they can enter these fields of law and give insight into what practising in those fields is like. The Academy is developing a formal curriculum for some of these areas of law to offer training that will be accredited by the LPC.


KR: What would you say to young girls who would like to pursue a career in law?

KD: To all young girls, dream big, set yourself attainable goals, collaborate with other women. As a young lawyer you cannot operate alone, be part of women organisations that mentor and coach. Reach out to older women in your profession for mentoring. Always look for opportunities for self-empowerment. Law is a gateway to anything. Success depends on what you set yourself to achieve if you fall, stand up and try again, know your blind spots and be open to learning.

Kgomotso Ramotsho Cert Journ (Boston) Cert Photography (Vega) is the news reporter at De Rebus.

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2021 (Dec) DR 24.

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