A Great Statesman, Mandela Also Inspired Fellow Lawyers

, The Am Law Daily

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Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela

Chaskalson, who died a year ago this week, was appointed to South Africa's constitutional court and served as its chief justice from 2001 to 2005. The country's entire system of governance needed to be changed. After graduating from law school, Mayers began working at Mallinicks, a firm in Cape Town that was among the few with black partners before the official end of apartheid. (Mallinicks merged with leading local firm Webber Wentzel in 2008.)

Mayers says Mallinicks represented many individuals imprisoned on Robben Island—where Mandela himself was incarcerated for nearly three decades—some of whom would go on to hold important positions in South Africa’s postapartheid governments. But many of the country’s other large firms faced tough questions about their ties to the apartheid establishment. For that reason, Mayers says, South Africa's young lawyers often took the lead on assignments that older partners might have had difficulty in handling.

“We had a crash course in rewriting the system,” Mayers says. He recalls scrambling with fellow law school graduates to tear down the infrastructure undergirding apartheid rule—an effort that involved everything from reworking local garbage collection ordinances to guiding corporate clients through the country’s new regulatory apparatus.

In the two decades since, South Africa’s transition to a full-fledged democracy under Mandela has helped it become a burgeoning economic power, even if free market reforms have also spurred an increase in social inequality. The country's importance as a gateway to the rest of the African continent has also benefited the same large firms that once struggled to straddle the divide between an untenable past and an uncertain future.

The Am Law Daily reported last month on Hogan Lovells becoming the latest Am Law 100 firm to enter the South African market by merging with 120-lawyer local firm Routledge Modise. Last year, around the time The American Lawyer took an in-depth look at South Africa’s changing legal landscape, Canada’s Fasken Martineau DuMoulin picked up top Johannesburg firm Bell Dewar.

To understand the full weight of Mandela's impact on the country's legal profession, one need only visit visit the website of any large South African firm.

Webber Wentzel, which earlier this year forged an alliance with Magic Circle firm Linklaters, prominently featured a statement honoring Madiba on its homepage Friday. Other leading local firms like DLA Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr and Werksmans released statements of their own, and scrolling through the sites of such firms turns up the names of dozens of lawyers who attended a university or received a legal scholarship named for Mandela.

Robert Otty, a managing director of Norton Rose Fulbright in Johannesburg, echoed the views of many in the profession with a statement offered on behalf of the firm. “We are deeply saddened to have lost the father of our nation, a guide and an icon,” he said.

Norton Rose, which is structured as a Swiss verein, established a substantial presence in South Africa in late 2010 though its tie-up with top local firm Deneys Reitz. (Norton Rose went on to combine with Canada’s Macleod Dixon in 2011 and absorb Am Law 100 firm Fulbright & Jaworski this summer.) Norton Rose’s respect for Mandela’s legacy extends beyond words.

The London-based firm has been representing a group of friends and directors—including longtime Mandela confidant and human rights lawyer George Bizos—in a high-profile court battle with two of the late leader's daughters who sought control of companies that manage the proceeds of their father's estate. (The daughters withdrew the litigation in October.)

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