The legal profession is highly competitive and unforgiving to black females

June 1st, 2023
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Legal practitioner, Palesa Ledwaba, is our June Young Thought Leader.

 

 

In this month’s Young Thought Leaders feature, De Rebus news reporter, Kgomotso Ramotsho, spoke to legal practitioner Palesa Ledwaba, who was recently appointed as the Managing Director at Maponya Inc. Ms Ledwaba was born in Soshanguve, a township in the north of Pretoria. Her parents are working class citizens, who like many black parents, relied on their extended relatives, such as grandparents or aunts to help with the upbringing of their children.

Ms Ledwaba said not much was expected from her by the community she grew up in, not only because of her background, but also because she was born with a condition that affected her mobility and almost left her wheelchair bound from infancy. This was a condition, which has only recently been diagnosed as hereditary spastic paraplegia.

Ms Ledwaba added that her family on the other hand had known of her potential and attaining a university qualification was non-negotiable. ‘I did fairly well throughout High School, which I completed at Hillview High School, being a regular feature on the top ten list academic students. I chose law from a very early age and my legal journey started in 2009 when I enrolled for an LLB at the University of Limpopo (this was after a year of doing BCom Law because my application to my preferred university had been rejected). The University of Limpopo may have not been my preferred university, but in hindsight, it was the best thing to have happened to me at the time. I obtained my LLB in 2012, by graduating at the top of my class and with a wealth of teachings from my participation in the student chapter of the Black Lawyers Association (BLA),’ Ms Ledwaba said.

After obtaining an LLB, Ms Ledwaba opted to immediately enrol for the six-month Law School Programme prior to seeking employment and by mid-2013 she had completed law school, wrote, and passed all four of her board examinations by August the same year and started serving her articles with Maponya Inc soon after completing the law school programme (Law Society of South Africa, School for Legal Practice).

 

Kgomotso Ramotsho (KR): Which field of practice are you in and why did you choose that field?

Palesa Ledwaba (PL): Much of my practice is in administrative, company and tax law especially customs, as well as general commercial litigation. I am well versed in tax legislation, namely, the Customs and Excise Act 91 of 1964, Tax Administration Act 28 of 2011, and Income Tax Act 58 of 1962.

I believe the practice of tax and administrative law chose me instead. I was fortunate enough to have done my articles under a principal who was not only willing to teach and transfer skills, but who exposed me to his networks and clients. When my principle left the firm, I had been well equipped to take over his clients in these fields and diversify the nature of tax instructions received by the firm despite having only been in practice for a year.

 

KR: Since completing your studies and being in practice, have you experienced challenges as a black female legal practitioner and what are those challenges?

PL: The legal profession is highly competitive and unforgiving to a black female. One of the biggest challenges that I had to face was establishing myself in a field that is still jealously guarded by the few who were privileged enough to be exposed to the practice long before black female practitioners were even allowed to practice law. It is also an on-going challenge where I find myself constantly having to prove worthiness to clients and opponents simply for being black and for being female.

Furthermore, my progression in the profession has been relatively faster than most and being recently appointed as the Managing Director at one of the biggest black-and-female-owned firms, Maponya Inc, has come with its own challenges. While I have never doubted my capabilities as a legal practitioner, the shift from being an employee (attorney) to being an employer (director and shareholder) was not an easy one, being part of the ‘table’ means constantly showing exactly what it is that you bring to the ‘table’. Client retention and excellent service are no longer enough, I must now go out and secure more clients, generate enough fees to ensure that the company makes profits and become part of the administration of ensuring that the company is compliant as a legal entity. This is where skills training becomes important, aside from the mandatory practice management training, one needs to constantly engage in skills development in addition to having a business acumen.

 

KR: This year South Africa is celebrating the centenary of the Women Legal Practitioners Act 7 of 1923. Do you have any thoughts on this?

PL: Prior to the promulgation of the Women Legal Practitioners Act 7 of 1923 (the Act), the court in the infamous judgment of Incorporated Law Society v Wookey 1912 AD 623, while refusing to come to the respondent’s aid to compel the Law Society to register her articles of clerkship, rendered (among others) the following unfortunate quote from Roman-Dutch law authorities in its reasons: ‘Likewise, owing to the same natural peculiarity, it happens that, in as much as nearly the whole of womankind by reason of an inborn weakness is less suited for matters requiring knowledge and judgment.’

It is worth mentioning that this judgment was handed down in 1912, a mere generation, at most two generations ago. So, while the legal impediment to women being admitted to practice as attorneys was taken away by the Act, I do not believe that is it so with regard to the beliefs held by those who hold a view as expressed by the court in the Wookey matter, namely, that women are in their nature not ‘built’ to practise law.

 

KR: In these 100 years of women being allowed to practice as legal practitioners in South Africa, do you think women in 2023 can say that there is equality in the legal profession and that the contribution of female legal practitioners is being noticed?

PL: The contributions are certainly being noticed, what is unfortunate is that we still fight for equality despite these contributions. It is perhaps necessary to highlight a few of these contributors:

  • Deputy Chief Justice Mandisa Maya, the first female South African Deputy Chief Justice and first female jurist who has served as President of the Supreme Court of Appeal.
  • Justice Zukisa Tshiqi, a Justice of the Constitutional Court who is also an activist for constitutional transformation, which is evident from the work she does with the African Regional Judges’ Forum.
  • Justice Yvonne Mokgoro who served as justice of the Constitutional Court from 1994 to 2009 and was awarded the presidential Order of the Baobab in Bronze for ‘her excellent contribution in the field of law and administration of justice in a democratic South Africa.’
  • Kathleen Matolo-Dlepu, a staunch activist for women empowerment in the legal profession and long-serving member of the BLA. She was elected as the first chairperson of the Legal Practice Council, which saw the formulation of the Legal Sector Code, a document, which aims to ensure the fair distribution of legal work from the State and private sector.

 

KR: You are a member of the BLA and the Deputy Chairperson of the Gauteng Branch. Tell us why you became a member?

PL: As mentioned above, I joined the BLA while I was still a student. A year into my studies I realised that my qualifications alone would not suffice for this profession, I needed to network and most importantly be exposed to potential employees. I worked my way up in the organisation from an event organiser to the first female chairperson since the student chapter had been re-launched at my university and now Deputy Chairperson of the Gauteng Branch. It was through my involvement in the organisation that I (and many others) got exposure to the working environment through placement in different law firms during school holidays and got to network with different legal practitioners and member of the judiciary through seminars we held.

After my university days, I continue to be an active member of the BLA as the need for commercially beneficial networking continues, the BLA has further given me a platform to advocate for the exposure of young black female excellence within the profession and to participate in the attainment of change of the status quo.

 

KR: What is one of the crucial challenges that black legal practitioners still face in this country, which has not been addressed?

PL: The advancement of racial equality in the profession has received much attention through legislature and other interventions such as the formation of organisations whose core existence is to tackle this issue, the BLA being one of them. It would seem, however, that those who hold the power to enforce change are comfortable with the status quo and have no motivation or will to enforce change.

Some of the challenges, which have been highlighted by the BLA over the years include:

  • The prevailing red tape that has been put in place in the access to lucrative work. A high number of black practitioners especially black female practitioners are concentrated in the field of family law and third-party litigation. Economic networking needs to be vigorously pursued including the briefing of black practitioners in high profile matters and ‘specialised’ fields.
  • The struggle of getting one’s worth in as far as fees are concerned. The rate/fee/statement or account of a black practitioner is more likely to be questioned/rejected by client than that of a white practitioner and this is not always based on merit.
  • Skills transfer, the few that have been fortunate to break through these barriers need to dedicate more time in skills transfer for young black practitioners.

 

KR: When the Legal Practice Act 28 of 2014 (LPA) was promulgated, it was hoped that it would address transformation issues. Can you see that transformation or does the profession still have some issues to resolve before we can say we truly have one inclusive legal profession?

PL: As correctly stated above, the idea behind the LPA was to ensure uniformity within the legal profession by creating a single statutory body and a step towards transformation within the legal fraternity. Furthermore, one of the objectives of the LPA is quoted as being to ‘remove any unnecessary or artificial barriers for entry into the legal profession.’

Wayne Dyer, an American author, and motivational speaker defines ‘transformation’ as ‘literally mean[ing] going beyond your form.’ The legal profession like the law itself is constantly changing its form to suit the generation it finds itself in, while the wheel of unifying the profession has been notably slow, we have seen some steps being taken in the objective of removing ‘unnecessary or artificial barriers’. An example of the latter being the new requirements for enrolment as a legal practitioner in terms of s 26 of the LPA, which does away with the unnecessary age requirement, which was required by its predecessor the Attorneys Act 53 of 1979.

We still have a long way to go but it is certainly headed in the right direction.

 

KR: As a young and black female legal practitioner, what are some of the ethics you live by? Give us one of your everyday ethics.

PL: I live by quite a few in both my personal and professional life:

  • Always maintain one’s integrity – it enhances all other values and beliefs. This goes way beyond one’s ethical duties prescribed by our regulators.
  • Being persistent – perseverance and determination will help one to forge through the most difficult cases and obtain a positive result for client.
  • Having a good and positive work ethic – although challenging, having a positive attitude in difficult situations is necessary and understanding as well as delivering on deadlines builds clients’ confidence.

 

KR: What are some of the hopes for women in the legal profession for the next 100 years?

PL: It is both saddening and concerning (to say the least) that ten decades later the modern-day woman continues to face the same high levels of oppression and exploitation in our working environments.

It is even more concerning that this situation rears its ugly head in a profession, which proclaims itself as noble and learned. In addition, perhaps the less talked about evil is where the perpetrators are women themselves.

My hope is that as females who are privileged to find themselves in leadership positions, we will ensure that discussions such as these remain top of the agenda, further that we align ourselves with the promotion of those who have broken through the barriers and holding one another accountable in order to accelerate the wheels of change. We need to ensure that some of the following measures are put in place –

  • the creation and maintenance of economically beneficial networking among female practitioners, this includes the preference of female candidate legal practitioners, appointment of female executives, briefing of female practitioners in lucrative work and lobbying of female candidates for judge appointments;
  • skills transfer and training for young female legal practitioners; and
  • promotion of healthy working environments.

It is important that female legal practitioners of a century from now do not suffer the same consequences or face the same challenges that we and those who came into practice a century ago face.

 

KR: Where do you see yourself in the next five years, namely, what are your plans in the legal space?

PL: My recent appointment as Managing Director of Maponya Inc has given me a platform to realise some of my preachings. When my term ends I want to leave a legacy of having implemented policies that seek to empower other young female practitioners and also channel my focus for the next five years into building on the strong foundations that have been left by the founders of the firm and my predecessors so as to maintain the firm’s reputation of being a competitive black-owned firm but also bringing in fresh ideas of how to remain top of our game in this difficult economic climate.

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

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2023 (June) DR 18.

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