Belinda Mapongwana had wanted to be a lawyer for as long as she could remember.
In fact, her obsession with the law once triggered her parents to attempt to sway her to a career they considered more conventional for a woman to pursue.
Decades later, she runs boutique law firm Mapongwana Attorneys, in Sandton. It has managed to bag major clients who would normally have opted for the bigger law firms.
During an interview with City Press, the Gugulethu-born attorney narrated how, after matriculating, she was not accepted into the law programme at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and instead resorted to plan B, which was pursuing a career in fashion design.
“Growing up I just wanted to be a lawyer. I didn’t even know any lawyer at that young age. It was only later on that there was a lawyer in my community.” He happened to be former national Director of Public Prosecutions Bulelani Ngcuka and has since become a family friend.
“When I didn’t get in at UCT, I went to the Cape Town College of Fashion Design. You have to have a plan B, but don’t deviate from plan A.”
After completing her qualification in fashion design, she worked as an assistant buyer in one of the chain stores.
After a year on the job, in 1995 a friend reminded her of her dream of being a lawyer and applied for her to return to UCT.
She went back and enrolled for a Bachelor of Social Science degree with English and politics as majors, before going on to an LLB degree.
“The finances were not a major issue for me because at some point I had a bursary. The issue for me was the fact that I was three years older than my classmates.”
After graduating, she joined Bowman Gilfillan as a candidate attorney. One of the problems she faced after joining the firm in Johannesburg, having spent her entire life in Cape Town, was not having her own car.
“I was in the litigation department so I needed a car, but I didn’t have one and I went to the court a lot. I befriended the firm’s messengers and would go with them when they went to court,” she says.
Barely six months into her time at Bowmans, she got a scholarship to study for a master’s degree in business law in Amsterdam.
“In Amsterdam, my world really expanded because when I was there I applied for an internship in Geneva, at the United Nations.”
She graduated with an honourable mention and, instead of coming home, went to Geneva. She spent three months there before returning to finish her articles at Bowman.
After being admitted as an attorney in 2005, she was made an associate and later moved to Edward Nathan Sonnenbergs (ENSafrica). Two years later, she got an opportunity to go to New York as part of a law society programme in partnership with the New York Bar.
“The difference is the size of the market, the size of the deals and the pace. It’s very fast and teams are structured differently.”
After 18 months in the US, she returned to ENSafrica. Not long after, she joined Barclays Capital’s compliance department before opening her own shop. She spent four years there, including nine months at their London head office.
After opening her own business in 2014, Mapongwana says she saw a gap in providing quality services for BEE deals.
“A lot of people got into deals that were not optimal for them because they could not afford the legal advice of the big firms.
“I wanted to create the environment I wanted to work in and create it also for other black professionals,” she says.
It is the norm for most people in her position to partner and share the name on the door, something Mapongwana says crossed her mind.
“It felt better for me to go it alone,” she said.
Although fresh out of employment at an investment bank, she was confident she would get clients.
“Some people asked me what was I thinking starting a law firm coming from a bank. It was a brave move and I have had doubts, but I always speak to other entrepreneurs and that’s how I manage to get comfort that I am not alone.”
Mapongwana points out that running the business is not always smooth sailing. With the help of a business-growth programme by consultancy Raizcorp, she has managed to navigate some of the trickier elements of business management, including dealing with debt.
“Law is tough to get into and even tougher to stay in,” she cautions.
When not sealing deals in boardrooms and growing her firm, Mapongwana says she loves watching fashion television channels, because that plan B remains a passion of hers.
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