The struggle for getting work as an emerging legal practitioner is real

December 1st, 2023

Legal practitioner, Thandeka Mpanza.

In this month’s Thought Leaders feature, we feature a young legal practitioner, Thandeka Mpanza who is an admitted attorney of the High Court. She practises of her own accord in Morningside, Sandton under the name and style of Thandeka Mpanza Attorneys, which is a boutique firm. Ms Mpanza said that she loves the law, particularly the administration of justice. ‘Though I believe more strides still need to be put in place to effect access to justice so as to restore faith in our justice system,’ Ms Mpanza said.

Ms Mpanza described herself as a light-hearted, dry humoured, allegedly intelligent, and outspoken young lady. ‘I am a leader, I am an activist, and one day wish my activism to reflect in my judgments as a judge on the Bench’, Ms Mpanza added. ‘I have the privilege of serving as the youngest Executive Member of the Law Society of South Africa, and once I got over the intimidation of advising and engaging on issues affecting the profession alongside very seasoned and respected senior members of the profession, I now realise that perhaps I was appointed for such a time as this, to be the voice of the youth within spaces wherein issues are affecting legal practitioners,’ Ms Mpanza added.

Ms Mpanza is a Branch Executive Committee Secretary of the Black Lawyers Association North West. She was born in Johannesburg and raised in a township in the East Rand called Vosloorus. However, she pointed out that she has very strong roots in the North West having studied at the North-West University. She said that her formative years were spent in Mahikeng with her maternal grandparents, after which, she returned home to Vosloorus and attended high school at Sunward Park High School in Boksburg.

Ms Mpanza added that the way her parents raised her largely shaped who she is. ‘My parents were and to this day remain very strict, however, that taught me discipline from an early age. Discipline to know that I was not allowed to do what most of my peers were doing and I had to learn to be ok with it’, said Ms Mpanza. She said her parents were not wealthy, but they persevered to ensure that she and her siblings had an advantage of an education, and everything else would determine by them and their choices.

Ms Mpanza said: ‘My mom starting as a staff nurse to having retired as senior Matron at Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital and having obtained her Honours degree in nursing through distance learning while raising four children really inspired me to push beyond my circumstances and persevere no matter the curveballs life threw at me. Anyone who has met my father connotates my resilience and fighting spirit to him, apparently, I am his replica. My dad has taught me the importance of betting on yourself, not being afraid of failure because it is an inevitable part of life. He taught me to stand up for the voiceless, and I guess perhaps that is my advocacy journey started. Naturally, when I told him I am ready to start my own practise he didn’t hesitate in supporting the thought, while my mom naturally leaned towards caution and insisted, I give it a bit more time.’


Kgomotso Ramotsho (KR): Why did you choose to study law?

Thandeka Mpanza (TM): My reasons for studying law are not noble nor the stuff great lawyers are made up of at all! The real answer is while I have always been a natural public speaker, and a fighter which was probably the universe preparing me to be a litigator, loved reading and drafting, my parents were trying to channel me towards the engineering field, only problem is that I was absolutely shocking at mathematics and numbers in general (my struggle with legal bookkeeping bears testimony to this).

While studying grade 11 I started attending university open days and imagine my pleasant delight that you do not need mathematics to be a lawyer.

I excitedly made a deal with my parents that if they allowed me, I would be the best lawyer this country has seen. They were not opposed to the idea at all, in fact they remarked ‘mara vele weitsi wena ka tsela u buang ka teng ulawyera’ (loosely translated ‘the manner in which you are so talkative being a lawyer suits you’).

However, I strongly believe that nothing happens by chance, and our destiny always finds us amidst confusion. Everything in my life prepared me for being an attorney, my love for people, my love for fairness and justice, my public speaking prepared me for court, my love for reading and drafting prepared me for pleadings and reading. Nothing ever happens in vain.


KR: You recently opened your own law firm. Have you always wanted to own your own law firm and why?

TM: I think the answer is yes and no. Yes, because it has indeed always been a dream of mine to establish a leading all female black owned and run law firm, however, fear of failure always deterred me. I wanted to run an impactful practice, one based on ethical behaviour and practice.

The no comes in here, the last time I checked a vast majority of newly opened practices fail within a very short time from inception, many of which are black owned. The idea and comfort of having a guaranteed salary seemed appealing to me, however, I decided to go with the former and bet on myself. The beauty of failure is that you get to try again.


KR: We often hear that it is challenging for emerging young legal practitioners who start their own firms. What are some of the challenges you have identified as a young legal practitioner who just started her own law firm?

TM: One hundred percent it is indeed challenging for emerging young legal practitioners starting their own practices. Firstly, the struggle for work is real! I do not subscribe to the school of thought that the pie is not big enough for all of us, I just believe that so many entities are not yet prepared to distribute work evenly among us. The biggest gripe for me is skewed or perhaps let me say procurement preferences that are designed in nature to exclude small firms, or young practitioners. An example is you will find yourself applying to be placed on a legal panel and one of mandatory requirement are that you ought to have five – ten years post-admission experience, and in some cases indemnity cover in excess of millions. While it can be understood why such requirements would be in place, automatically I would lose points for the panel bid. The principle to me is simple, give me work to gain the experience to generate more work. There are so many other difficulties, and while we are thankful that the Law Society of South Africa offers compulsory courses such as Practice Management Training to somewhat prepare us for efficiently running our practices, we need more support and guidance from seasoned practitioners as to avoid issues that emanate from lack of mentorship and support. Support in respect of running administrative function, correctly branding and running marketing, leadership etcetera.


KR: You do work in administration of deceased estates. How do you feel about challenges that legal practitioner face at the Masters office not being efficient or functional, the way it should be?

TM: The situation at the Master’s office is disheartening, especially because while the COVID-19 pandemic might have exasperated the situation, these challenges were always there. I am of the view that the issues stem from a lack of leadership and service delivery. Once that aspect is resolved, all the other issues such as unanswered correspondences and telephone calls, allegations of bribery, directives being issued without consultation, etcetera become ancillary and can be resolved.


KR: What would you change at the Master’s office to make it functional?

TM: I am of the view that the Master’s office needs to fast track modernising their systems to streamline operations, automate processes, ensure transparency, and increase accountability.

I am of the view that they need to thoroughly train and re-train officials to enhance efficiency and customer focus, basic ‘Batho Pele’ principles. Additional capacity needs to be added and vacant posts need to be filled.


KR: What is the most important quality you think a legal practitioner should have?

TM: I think the most important qualities a legal practitioner should have are diligence and meticulousness.

I think (and I concede that some might disagree) but empathy is also an important quality. Now, if you do not conflate issues and ethics by getting involved in your client’s matter, empathy will make you realise that save for conveyancing and commercial transactions etcetera, attorneys are approached when clients have an issue/dispute, and regretfully that issue requires them to part with money prior to it being potentially resolved.

The work of an attorney is therefore very difficult besides the actual work itself, as you need to manage client expectations from the onset, a likely very frustrated client that is.

I think empathy will help you remember that as an attorney you need to be honest with a client from the onset on the prospects of success, be transparent on potential costs involved, offer constant communication, honesty, integrity, no overcharging or overreaching, offer an excellent service offering that you would want to be offered likewise. Basically, do unto clients as you want done to yourself.


KR: Who is your mentor, and do you think it is important for young legal practitioners to have mentors? What is the importance of mentorship?

TM: Again, contra to the norm, I have never confined myself to one specific mentor. I draw inspiration from all the people I meet en route this life journey, why would you want to confine yourself when this profession is filled with different yet exceedingly outstanding practitioners who some are unbeknown to the public?

If I were though to highlight some of the people who I have stolen snippets of life lessons from, and continue to use them in approaching practice it would be the following:

Now Judge Mabaeng Denise Lenyai and legal practitioner Mme Khanyisa Mogale – I met these women as attorneys practicing in the North West while I was a student and they embodied everything I wanted to become as an attorney. Run a successful practice, impart knowledge, remain an activist, and be beautiful. No surprise Mme Lenyai is now a judge seated at the Gauteng Division of the High Court.

Mr Edwin Tlou runs a successful practice in Mahikeng and Rustenburg that I would like to model my practise similar to one day.

I also draw inspiration from practitioners I have met and worked with along the way, some brilliant minds in the corporate law spaces, a space said not to be filled by black practitioners namely legal practitioner Arthur Maisela, Mr Ronny Mkhwanazi, and though I have only ever said to him ‘it is a pleasure meeting you Sir’, Mr Michael Bill Motsoeneng. These men are outstanding in the respective fields, and an inch of their knowledge would make me an outstanding practitioner.

Lastly, peers who have opened their own practices, who concede that the journey is not easy but month in month out they keep on pushing and doing so brilliantly: Ms Tshepo Masilela, Lemogang Ngunduza, Orefotse Modubu, Mr Letlhogonolo Nomadolo, Mr Gift Mncube, Mr Dobbie Mhlongo, legal practitioner Rorisang Tsalong, and excellent drafter and researcher legal practitioner Regomoditswe Marakalla.

They are all young practitioners who I have drawn inspiration from, and I occasionally draw counsel from them outside of legal knowledge (like what to do when clients do not pay invoices). Their names may not be well known yet, but I do not doubt that the future judiciary will be made up of some of these names.


KR: What are your goals, where do you want to see yourself in the next five years?

TM: Honestly, I just want to practice the law in a manner that reminds me why we lawyers are there; to help people. I want to run an ethical practice that is founded on excellence. We have commercialised the law so much we have lost the basics.

We do, however, need to survive and commercialise the law to some extent, and to that end I would like to own and run one of the biggest boutique all-rounder firms in Gauteng and expanding into North West. Without prejudice, I would like to have an all-female team in respect of both professional and support staff (I trust that should one day employ a male colleague in future, this article will not be used against me). I want to be remembered and counted among the best, who served the people with pride and diligence.

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 (Dec) DR 34.