White men still rule the roost at law firms

2013-06-09 14:00

Although South Africa has ­succeeded in opening the doors of legal education to all, the ­profession itself remains the ­preserve of white males.

This is the picture painted by statistics that have been ­submitted to Parliament’s ­portfolio committee of justice and constitutional development by the Law Society of SA.

The submission shows that 64% of attorneys currently practising in South Africa are white. Black males make up 24% percent of the profession, while 41% are white males. At least 23% of lawyers are white females. The 2 684 black female attorneys make up just 12% of the total.

This stands in stark contrast to the number of first-year law students who are black and female.

The submission shows that the number of female first-year law students between 2006 and 2011 varied between 53% and 54%.

The percentage of black first-year students for the same ­period increased from 66% and 78%, respectively.

Dr Lesley Greenbaum, a senior law lecturer at the University of Cape Town’s department of ­private law, told City Press that the high levels of attrition were attributable to poor schooling and a four-year LLB degree that attempts to pack too much into too little time.

Greenbaum, who wrote her doctoral thesis on the topic of ­legal education, says that many law faculties had not transformed and were conducting “business as usual”.

When students from disadvantaged backgrounds came into such an environment, it often created a “cycle of disadvantage that lasts well into their career”.

“They don’t end up in the big law firms ... They end up in small law firms, they become prosecutors, they work for Legal Aid or in the public sector,” she said.

Greenbaum is one of those ­arguing for fundamental changes in the legal curriculum at a time when the legal profession enters a period of intense introspection over its four-year LLB legal ­qualification.

The four-year LLB undergraduate degree, which replaced the traditional two-year postgraduate qualification, was introduced in 1998 to make legal education available to students from ­previously disadvantaged ­backgrounds.

It is now widely acknowledged to have failed in equipping graduates with the necessary skills ­required in the legal profession.

Last week, the Law Society of SA, the General Council of the Bar, as well as organisations representing law deans, teachers and students, resolved that the Council for Higher Education should begin a process of setting new standards for the LLB degree.

There was a “broad consensus” that an extra year of study should be added to the ­programme.

The “elephant in the room” at the summit was the fact that law graduates at certain universities were of a much higher calibre than others and were receiving preferential treatment from big law firms.

Nic Swart, CEO of the Law ­Society of SA, said it was necessary for set standards to be in place so that all law schools could be on the same page.

“Some law firms prefer people from certain faculties and to combat that, other law faculties will certainly need more ­support.”

Swart hoped that it wouldn’t come to the point where the ­profession was forced to accredit faculties of law, in the same way that the accounting and engineering professions do.

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