Stay the course and finish what you start

December 1st, 2022

Legal practitioner, Tshepo Shabangu, speaks about her journey in the legal profession as a female legal practitioner and her role in intellectual property law.

In this issue, De Rebus News Reporter, Kgomotso Ramotsho spoke to legal practitioner, Tshepo Shabangu, about her journey in the legal profession as a female legal practitioner and her role in intellectual property (IP). Ms Shabangu told De Rebus that she was born and raised in Mamelodi, Pretoria, in a very loving family. She added that she has two sisters, and she is the middle child. She described her late parents as people who were humble, industrious, and very generous. ‘They did not miss an opportunity to share whatever they had, whether their wisdom or material possessions, with us and the people in our community,’ Ms Shabangu said.

Ms Shabangu added: ‘Growing up in an era where girl children were not valued as much as boy children in our community, it was heartening to see how our dad never missed an opportunity to tell us how valuable we were and how he ignored all forms of stereotyping and bias.

It is because of the example set by our parents during our childhood, that we grew up to be the people we are today, and no number of words would be sufficient to express my gratitude for the foundation they laid for us. The qualities that our parents taught us, such as resilience, patience, and humility, stood me in good stead, not only in life but also in my legal career, and this will be demonstrated throughout our discussion.

I would like to be regarded, hopefully, as a good child, wife, mother, friend, colleague, lawyer, and a woman of faith, who is willing to use whatever skills she has to make a meaningful contribution’.

Ms Shabangu obtained her BProc and LLB degrees at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, and an LLM (Comparative Law – Company Law) at the University of Bonn, Germany. She pointed out that she was awarded a bronze medal for being the best undergraduate student for her BProc degree and obtained magna cum laude pass for her LLM in Germany.


Kgomotso Ramotsho (KR): When did you decide that you wanted to become a legal practitioner and why?

Tshepo Shabangu (TS): I would like to say that I thought of being a lawyer since my youth, but that is not the case, and my example is not to be emulated as I decided to study law through a chance encounter with a prospective law student during registration.

When I was growing up my dad worked for an American multinational, and he would invite his American colleagues to our house. I also got involved with the German community at a young age when I was doing the German language course, and my German teacher often frequented our house, bringing books for me to read, and sometimes I would go to functions at the German embassy. It was through this interaction that I became interested in diverse cultures and languages and decided that I wanted to be in the diplomatic service. However, as I am not involved in politics, I abandoned this idea and decided at the last minute when I was on campus for registration that I would study law. I chose the four-year BProc degree as I could immediately serve my articles after completing this degree and did not need an LLB to become an attorney.

However, despite not having had plans to study law initially, it all worked out in the end as I was taught that once you start something, you must finish it and give it your best.


KR: How long have you been practising as a legal practitioner?

TS: I was admitted as an attorney on 7 September 1999, and I am also a Notary Public.

I have been in practice post-admission for over 23 years, and I specialise in IP Law at the boutique IP firm, Spoor & Fisher. I assist clients, both locally and internationally, in protecting their IP rights. I run a diverse practice focusing on trademark searches, filing trademark applications, conducting IP due diligence investigations and IP portfolio management.

Having sat on boards of non-profit and for-profit companies, I also have extensive experience in corporate governance and can use my legal background to add value and contribute.


KR: Tell us about the challenges you faced during your studies abroad and in the legal profession?

TS: As my studies abroad were in German and I was required to write the German proficiency examination at university level, it was a challenge for me to ready myself for that examination. I was initially also lonely and did not cope very well with the cold weather. However, on telling my parents that I wanted to come back home, they reminded me to stay the course and finish what I started, which gave me the necessary motivation to persevere. They also reminded me not to waste the opportunity, but to focus on what was in my control and what I could offer.

I also needed to write my thesis and find someone with a legal background who could guide me, but I had no access to a computer or a mentor. To solve these problems, I assisted one business executive with some administrative matters in exchange for being provided with a computer to type my thesis on during the tenure of my studies. I also offered to clean a lawyer’s apartment in exchange for guidance on how to approach my studies and thesis.

The challenge I faced in practice was how to win new clients, as I felt that I knew very few decision makers in corporations or business owners who were likely to pass legal work to me. I adjusted my thinking and, in line with my parents’ teachings, focused on what I could do and became involved in activities of bar associations/law societies at the infancy stage of my career, sat on committees of those organisations and gave presentations on IP and other areas of interest to the legal profession. These activities led to my forging good relationships with other lawyers and getting work referred to me.

The take-away point for young lawyers in the profession is that everyone can contribute, and the trick is focusing on what you can do to add value and maximising your strengths. Of course, that is not to say that we must not work on our shortcomings, but we cannot be so focused on that to the point of paralysis.


KR: What is your role at the International Bar Association (IBA)? What is the importance of the IBA?

TS: The IBA is said to be ‘the global voice of the legal profession’ and has a membership of over 190 law societies/bar associations and more than 80 000 individual lawyers across the globe.

I am the Council Representative of the Law Society of South Africa (LSSA) on the IBA Council. I am also an officer of the Bar Issues Commission (BIC), which is one of the leadership structures of the IBA, and an advisory board member of the IBA African Regional Forum (ARF).

As a result of my involvement in the LSSA roadshows on the topic of ‘The end of law as we know it’ sought to address changes in the legal market. I was invited to join the Steering Committee and taskforce of the IBA’s Presidential taskforce on the future of legal services. Flowing from the taskforce, the Future of Legal Services Commission was established, which will continue to highlight the changes to practitioners that are taking place in the legal landscape and how to address those.

I also participated in the IBA’s Presidential taskforce on cybersecurity and contributed to the drafting of the cybersecurity guidelines published by the IBA in 2018 to assist legal practitioners to deal with threats to cybersecurity.

Turning to your question regarding the importance of the IBA, and as someone who loves spending time in the bush on a safari, I equate the IBA to what a game ranger does when spotting the tracks of certain animals and identifying the type of species that those tracks belong to and where they are likely to be found. Similarly, the IBA actively monitors the emerging trends in the legal landscape, highlight these to the members and offer guidelines or solutions on how to deal with these changes. Through its various divisions, the IBA promotes the rule of law and keeps its members abreast on, among others, developments in their areas of expertise, how to do business development and meet clients’ changing needs, how Artificial Intelligence (AI) impacts the practice of law, how to address diversity issues in the legal profession and the importance of attorney-wellbeing, to name but a few.

Another important factor in being a member of the IBA, is the extensive networks it provides, which can be very useful when looking for legal counsel for your clients in various jurisdictions.


KR: Which other organisations or boards do you participate in?

TS: Until its dissolution, I was a member of the Law Society of the Northern Provinces (LSNP) Council. I am a fellow and past President of the South African Institute of Intellectual Property Law (SAIIPL).

I am also a member of various professional bodies and chambers of commerce, including the LSSA, Black Lawyers Association (BLA), National Bar Association (NBA), the European Communities Trademark Association (ECTA), the Southern African-German Chamber of Commerce and Austrian Business Chamber.

I currently sit as a non-executive director on one of the top 100 companies listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE), Astral Foods Ltd. I previously chaired the company’s Remuneration committee and now chair the Social and Ethics committee, in addition to being a member of the Audit and Risk committee, as well as the Environmental, Governance and Social (ESG) committee.


KR: You obviously travel for work and meetings in the different associations or organisations you are in and meet many women from different countries. What is the feeling out there, in regard to the legal profession of their countries, especially African countries? Do they have the same challenges female legal practitioners have in South Africa (SA)?

TS: One of the challenges most professional women face is trying to achieve work life balance, which can sometimes be so elusive. If these women are supported, and offered flexible work arrangements, we are likely to see an increase in several women entering the profession and staying the course. For the longest of time, our firm has had policies in place, which allow for remote and flexible work arrangements, which are not only open for women, but for men as well.

There are instances where women professionals reported that they were relegated to do ‘housekeeping’ duties, such as making coffee or scheduling meetings, and were not given high worth assignments. Again, law firms can do much to ensure that there is proper allocation of work, where everyone, irrespective of gender, will be exposed to high worth assignments.

Another challenge faced by professionals is mental health. This has become more apparent after the COVID-19 pandemic. The high level of stress of running practices remotely (and possible loss of income), while trying to juggle home responsibilities and other professional activities have had a huge impact on the health of professionals. More work should be done to ensure the wellbeing of professionals.

As we all know, women all over the world are ‘homemakers’. Therefore, the number of women lawyers was significantly lower when I first joined the profession, but we are, however, seeing more women coming up the ranks. With many law firms advocating for work life balance, especially after the pandemic, the numbers are likely to increase.

Mentorship and sponsorship are critical in retaining women lawyers in the profession, and the IBA Women Lawyers’ Committee has recently launched a Mentorship Toolkit aimed at closing the gender gap in the legal profession, which can be obtained from the IBA’s website.


KR: You were nominated for various awards at the WOZA Africa Awards 2022, but you declined one nomination and recommended another woman for that award. Which award category was this? And why did you decline the nomination?

TS: I was nominated for the individual award: Best in IP Law in 2022. As I am a recipient of the WOZA’s Corporate Practising Lawyer award (there was no separate category for IP at the inaugural awards) in 2019, I declined the nomination so that I can afford other women in IP the opportunity to be nominated. Besides, I had already nominated a deserving candidate in this category, and it would not have been appropriate for me to accept the nomination. I am pleased that this paved a way for my hardworking and talented partner, Linda Thilivhali, to win the award in 2022.

I do not have a ‘scarcity mentality’ and believe that there is room for all of us to flourish at the right time. I have had my opportunity and it was now the turn of other deserving candidates to be nominated and obtain awards in recognition of their work.

Paving a way for others reminds me of James Keller’s words that ‘a candle loses nothing by lighting another candle’. It also reminds me of the words ‘after you’ which I use quite a lot when stepping aside so that elderly people (or those who need it) can pass first. Therefore, there is no need in my view to always be first, or the only one, and it is indeed good to defer to others and let them gain recognition, which in effect would be like saying ‘after you’.

The WOZA team also deserves recognition for creating this platform for women and male champions to be recognised.


KR: What are some of the challenges that you faced being a black female legal practitioner in the legal profession?

TS: As a woman, and a woman of colour, it is not always easy to gain trust and credibility as a competent lawyer. This type of scepticism can be quite hurtful when it has no basis – but having met other women lawyers at conferences and through my travels around the world who share the same experience, I have decided not to allow the stereotype to deter me.

The experience has taught me that I must continue doing my work to the best of my ability, and be open to accepting criticism, if there is a basis for it, and in the interest of developing my skills. Balance is needed, and you have to know when criticism is warranted and use it to improve, and when it is just simply malicious.


KR: Are there enough women in IP law?

TS: As mentioned above, we are now seeing a lot of women entering the profession and some are progressing to partnership ranks. So, I would say that there is a healthy dose of women lawyers in the IP fraternity, especially from the trade marks’ side. There is still a lag from the patent side, as it is a requirement for patent attorneys to first obtain a science or technical degree, and then a law degree. Hopefully, this gap will be closed as more women obtain qualifications in the science and engineering fields.

The International Trademark Association (INTA) launched The Women’s LeadershIP Initiative to investigate the status of women in the IP field, and it may be useful to read their updated report of September 2022.


KR: Looking back when you started as a young female legal practitioner in the IP area and now, are there currently more opportunities for women and are women taking up space in this area of law?

TS: Women are taking up space in the IP profession as compared to when I initially started practicing. Although some remain in practice, there are those who are appointed to senior positions in-house or at other IP institutions.


KR: The WOZA Awards recognises and celebrates the hard work of female legal practitioners. Besides the recognition and nominations of these awards, are women being recognised for their hard work? Can you say that your male counterparts respect and recognise that women can do the job as good as men can?

TS: Generally, I would say that the situation is gradually changing – this can be seen from women who have progressed to partnership. This change cannot solely be attributed to women, but also to firms that are attracting talent and the men who have championed and mentored these women to be able to progress to that level. WOZA awards also has a category that recognises male champions in the legal profession, and this demonstrates the leading role that they can play in influencing the culture of law firms to be more inclusive.

Personally, this has never been an issue and the firms that I have worked for, including my current firm, have always emphasised the standards of the firm which everyone was expected to adhere to, irrespective of their gender. Also, the professionals are exposed to the same high-quality training and have access to the same opportunities to progress in the firm. The issue is never whether you are a man or woman, but whether you meet the standards set by the firm, and that will determine your progression in the firm. In fact, I was mentored and sponsored mainly by my male counterparts in the profession, and never got the sense that they expected my performance not to be up to par because I was a woman.


KR: Besides the WOZA awards, you have received several other awards during your career. Can you tell us about some of those?

TS: At this point, I would like to highlight only one award received from the South African Professional Services Awards (SAPSA), as it was so unexpected. After my nomination and interview with SAPSA, I was informed that I was the recipient of the Law Professional of the Year award for 2019/2020. It was very encouraging to receive this accolade.


KR: What is your general feeling about the IP space in SA?

TS: I am of the view that SA has great IP laws, and our IP practitioners are counted among the best in the world. We have the opportunity to practice law on an international scale in a field which is dynamic, hence I view it as a great privilege to be involved in this area of law.

I marvel at how incredibly innovative our clients are and am always on the lookout for new products in the market which our firm has assisted in protecting. Before I became a trade mark practitioner, a trip to the supermarket was just simply that, but now it is an adventure where I specifically look for our client’s products on the shelves and what their competitors are bringing to the market.


KR: Are there any exciting projects that you may be working on that will contribute to the greater good of the legal profession and, if so, what are they?

TS: As mentioned, I am involved in the Future of Legal Services Commission through the IBA and will continue to share the emerging trends in the legal market with the LSSA and colleagues in the legal profession. One area which I believe will receive increasing attention is around AI, specifically the ethical considerations of using AI in the legal profession, how AI will impact the regulation of the legal profession as well as the issue of liability when using AI to deliver legal services.

I also hope to carve out time to be involved and active in the IP section of the IBA.


KR: Who is your support structure?

TS: As you know, ‘no man is an island’ and we all need the support of others to find joy and fulfilment in our lives. My biggest support structure is my family – my husband, sisters, and children. My partners at Spoor & Fisher and my friends have also been my support system. I owe a debt of gratitude to everyone who has been there for me both in my personal life and in the legal profession.


KR: What is your view towards conflict resolution?

TS: Like any other industry, there is bound to be conflict in a high-pressured environment like the legal practice and it is important to learn how to deal with such conflict without causing irreparable damage.

You need to know what your non-negotiables are, and for me it has always been my Christian faith and values. I have also had to learn throughout the years to tame my ego (and this will always be work in progress due to my imperfections) and the words from the Bible to the effect that ‘there is a time for everything, … a time to be silent and a time to speak’, have assisted me in my dealings with others. If a matter arises which is important, I try to let my views be known in a respectful manner. However, if an issue is not that important, or when I sense that speaking up will escalate matters for the worst or not have the desired effect, I may decide to remain silent, for once a word has gone out, it can never be taken back. Also, not taking everything personally can go a long way in diffusing certain difficult situations.


KR: Any advice to the young female practitioners who may want to practice in IP, but have doubts or feel like there are not enough opportunities there?

TS: There are a lot of opportunities in the IP sector, both in practice and in-house. Most universities now offer IP as an elective course, which was not the case when I was studying, hence it is possible that the young practitioners may have had some exposure and knowledge of IP when they were students. If not, all is not lost, as SAIIPL is providing courses on various branches of IP, and the practitioners can enrol as student members and write exams in this area. Also, if determined to practice in this area, they may apply to law firms specialising in IP, so that they can attain hands on experience.

A good grasp of the area of expertise one chooses to specialise in, is a must, and it will help to have a good work ethic, be teachable, get a mentor and be involved in the structures of the profession.

Despite having strong technical expertise in IP, or any other chosen legal field, it is important to acquire soft skills (such as emotional intelligence, empathy, good communication etcetera) which will assist you in forming good relationships with your colleagues and clients and resolve matters swiftly when tricky situations and conflict arise.

Lastly, when the going gets tough, which will happen, young practitioners must remember to stay the course and finish what they started.

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

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2022 (Dec) DR 23.