Legal sector still a pale-male affair

2009-09-05 08:35

FIFTEEN years into freedom and it’s clear that the law is still a white world.

While the profession says its accepts the imperative of transformation, it has not ­embraced the practice.

An

analysis of a recent Business Day Best Lawyers survey reveals that of

the 300 “best lawyers” in South Africa only two are African, four Asian

and one is coloured.

The unflattering state of

transformation in this sector is further confirmed by a desktop

analysis of the top 100 JSE Securities-listed companies’ legal spend.

This

analysis revealed that only one of these companies has a black law firm

as their primary corporate lawyers while their combined legal spend is

disproportionately skewed in favour of big ­Johannesburg-based law

firms and pale male advocates.

It is therefore not surprising, albeit enlightening, that white lawyers overwhelmingly dominate the Best Lawyers list.

Further,

an analysis of the sector reveals that there still exist deep racial

rifts. Most of this is a consequence of historical privilege, hardened

attitudes, mistrust and resistance to change.

It follows

therefore that white lawyers are more likely to brief white advocates.

However, the converse does not always hold true.

Black

professionals, especially in senior procurement positions, need to be

introspective about their commitment to transformation before taking

pot-shots at others.

It is a sad reality that whereas it is

commonplace to see blacks patronising white law firms, it would be

highly unusual to see the roles reversed.

This even in

unopposed poor white “papgeld” matters – never mind large, complex

corporate mergers and acquisitions from which substantial legal fees

may be derived.

It is disheartening when lame excuses for

the status quo are proffered by the self-same beneficiaries of

affirmative action in corporate South Africa who do not provide any

meaningful platform for the development of successful black business

through instruments under their control.

In fact, some of them are known to have blocked the awarding of multimillion- rand contracts to black firms out of sheer spite.

On

the other hand, it is also worth noting that not all black practices

that collapsed were victims of a lack of procurement opportunities. In

fact, some have simply crumbled under their own management

extravagances.

All the same, it is disgraceful that some

senior black executives unashamedly hide behind such failed examples as

they deny black firms work.

However, the role of black

lawyers’ in the perpetuation of the status quo should not be

downplayed. The unfortunate reality is that the sub-par conduct and

performance of a few black lawyers informs the general perception.

While

it is a fact that black lawyers face comparatively more challenges in

establishing and running their practices, the situation is not

exclusive to this sector. With the same breath, Some black lawyers need

to realise that being black is not in itself an automatic licence for

mediocrity.

It must be emphasised that this does not

suggest that there are no successful black firms either. The point is

they offer little competition against their white counterparts who

continue to dominate the ring.

Therefore, any transformation project that does not redress this iniquity will fail.

There

is no doubt that, given the chance, most black lawyers can excel and

compete with the best. And as they succeed, perhaps only then can a

meaningful and sustainable increase in black advocates’ briefings be

realised.

Further, while black lawyers understandably

lament the lack of business they also need to guard against accusations

of double standards. Most of them can likewise be faulted for not

supporting other black businesses.

Finally, as we broaden

the debate on transformation we need to be honest and confront our own

human frailties. We need to candidly interrogate our own performances

before we apportion blame. To do ­otherwise would be downright

dishonest and unhelpful.

The success of future generations depends on this and they have more to lose than we ­realise. 

Khaas is president of the SA SMME Forum

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