A Great Statesman, Mandela Also Inspired Fellow Lawyers

, The Am Law Daily

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Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela

UPDATE: 12/10/13, 1:24 p.m. EST. In several little-known facts about Mandela, the BBC reports that he only officially received his law degree in 1989.

Nelson Mandela’s death Thursday prompted an outpouring of tributes around the world. But before he became one of the 20th century’s most influential world leaders, Mandela founded South Africa’s first black law firm, a bold step on what would be a long path to social justice.

In his 1994 autobiography "Long Walk to Freedom," Mandela wrote that upon completing his legal studies in 1951, he was “outraged to discover” that many of the country’s “most blue-chip law firms charged Africans even higher fees for criminal and civil cases than they did their far wealthier white clients.”

The discovery led Mandela to open his own law office in Johannesburg. During lunch breaks he would frequently meet his friend and fellow lawyer Oliver Tambo. When visiting Tambo at his firm Kovalsky and Tuch, Mandela wrote that he “made a point of sitting in a Whites Only chair in the Whites Only waiting room.”

In 1953, Mandela recalled, the pair launched their own shop, Mandela and Tambo, which quickly became the “firm of first choice and last resort” for black clients seeking legal help navigating South Africa’s strict system of racial segregation called apartheid.

“I realized quickly what Mandela and Tambo meant to ordinary Africans,” Mandela wrote. “It was a place where they could come and find a sympathetic ear and a competent ally, a place where they would not be either turned away or cheated, a place where they might actually feel proud to be represented by men of their own skin color. This was the reason I had become a lawyer in the first place, and my work often made me feel I had made the right decision.”

Ultimately, Mandela and Tambo's antiapartheid activism provoked South Africa’s ruling authorities to harass the firm out of existence. More than 50 years after its offices were destroyed by fire in 1960, Mandela and Tambo would be reborn as a museum in 2011. Tambo spent years in exile before he died in 1993, while Mandela was one of several defendants convicted in the infamous Rivonia trial, for which he served 27 years in prison before being released in 1990.

Mandela’s journey from prisoner to president had many of South Africa’s largest firms—as well as some prominent attorneys from the country—pausing to reflect on his legacy upon his death at age 95.

Marco Masotti, a native South African and corporate partner and cochair of the private funds practice at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison in New York, tells The Am Law Daily that the circumstances surrounding Mandela’s first visit to Manhattan in 1993 helped persuade him to join the firm.

Mandela's host on that occasion was Theodore Sorensen, a former speechwriter for President John F. Kennedy who at the time was a senior Paul Weiss partner. The firm had provided pro bono counsel to the South Africa Free Elections Fund, which was raising money from corporate donors for voter education to help the country carry out its first free democratic elections in 1994. (Sorensen died in 2010.)

Masotti joined Paul Weiss in 1993 and worked through the firm and the New York City Bar Association to receive the credentials needed to serve as an election observer the following year. Masotti, who is biracial, grew up in a small town south of the South African coastal city of Durban, near where Mandela cast his own vote in the landmark election.

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