Nelson Mandela: A lawyer for all seasons

It’s been 25 years since Nelson Mandela walked free after 27 years of imprisonment in South Africa. Today, in San Diego, one wonders what value any writer could add to the ocean of ink spilled about Mandela down the years.

Maybe there is something: Mandela's example as a practicing lawyer. In a time when the public is rightfully cynical about American lawyers and judges, even a cursory study of Mandela's life in the law gives inspiration.

Mandela began working as a lawyer in 1951 at the law firm of Terblanche & Briggish in Johannesburg. He drafted pleadings, sent out summonses and interviewed witnesses.

Later, with his partner, Oliver Tambo, Mandela opened the first law firm in South Africa whose members were black. Mandela and Tambo leased a three-room office in Chancellor House, a small building in central Johannesburg.

Mandela wrote that, from the beginning, the two-man firm was "besieged with clients." These were Africans who had committed such apartheid-era crimes as walking through a whites-only door, riding a whites-only bus, being on the streets after 11 p.m. and lacking a pass.

Tambo spent much of his time in the office; Mandela, in the courtroom. Mandela and Tambo practiced together from 1952 to 1956, before their fight against apartheid came to consume their lives.

I often read stories of California lawyers who win multimillion-dollar verdicts, take on large corporate defendants in big class actions, and free innocent defendants from prison. These lawyers are highly accomplished. But can one of them match the timeless ideal of law practice given to us by Nelson Mandela?

Mandela would have had no use for the incivility that is a plague on the California bar today. He was a gentleman at all times. This was in the face of gross humiliation and under the greatest of stress. He fought a legal system that was immoral, unjust and stupid.

Yet the record lists no instance of him using any of those adjectives to describe his persecutors and adversaries, despite the severest of provocations and insults.

In reading his famous speech from the dock during the 1963-64 Rivonia Trial, which led to Mandela’s imprisonment with other leaders of the African National Congress, I looked for words that might reflect the anger, bitterness and fear Mandela must have felt at the time. I couldn't find any.

Instead, I found only logic, persuasion and uncluttered prose. On his release from prison, he responded without bitterness to a regime that had taken 27 years away from him and his family during the prime of his life. It seems impossible to suppose that he would have sent an intemperate reply to an opposing lawyer who gutlessly insulted him in the sort of snarky email commonly exchanged by lawyers today.

The timelessness of Mandela's work emerges in today's headlines about police officers' abuses of black citizens' rights in America in the year 2015. Mandela recognized that a state whose police brutalize their fellow countrymen needs legal reform.

Mandela's speech to the court from the dock in 1964 rings as true today in the United States as it did then in South Africa: "The government which uses force to maintain its rule teaches the oppressed to use force to oppose it."

In his book about the whoring-out of the U.S. legal profession, “The Betrayed Profession,” the late American lawyer Sol Linowitz wrote, "The conviction of large groups of our population that they do not stand equal before the law may be the greatest cause of civil unrest — and perhaps of crime — in our country."

No one familiar with news reports of white police officers' abuses of human rights in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore can honestly doubt the aptness of those words, 21 years after Linowitz wrote them and 51 years after Mandela spoke from the dock about the same thing.

Most of all, Mandela had personal fortitude. He endured separation from his wife and children for 27 years, for the sake of trying to end injustice in his country. For years, he was allowed one visit per year and one letter each six months. Do you know any American lawyer who would undergo the same for any client or cause? I surely don't.

Today, you can visit Mandela and Tambo's old office in Chancellor House, in central Johannesburg. During a recent restoration, workers replaced the roof, installed new windows, and re-laid the second-floor offices with parquet flooring. I hope to visit it someday.

There, in the early 1950s, amid the daily bustle of client business, walked a young lawyer. Many mornings, he had to weave his way through the clients, and prospective clients, clogging the hallways.

He probably had some clients who were difficult, some adversaries who were jerks. I'm sure he had to worry about covering monthly expenses, keeping employees accountable and motivated, and the other tedious things that make up the grind of practicing law.

And yet he rose above it all and lived the highest values of the legal profession — the rule of law and human rights.

"The lawyer has a responsibility not only to his client's cause, but to helping the world get its work done," Linowitz wrote.

As a lawyer, Nelson Mandela helped the world get its work done. In this, he remains a lawyer for all seasons. No American attorney or judge whose bronze statue or marble bust graces a courthouse today can equal his giant example.

Lawton is the principal of Lawton Law Firm in downtown San Diego. On Law, appears twice monthly in The Daily Transcript.

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1 UserComments
Marcus Jackson 12:00am May 13, 2015

Excellent piece. This really puts in perspective what it truly means to face challenges in the practice of law. I never knew these details and am glad I stopped to read this. It is really inspirational