So, you have graduated cum laude from one of the top law universities in the country and have been offered articles with a Big Five law firm. Following years of struggle, you are eager to finally embark on your career as a legal eagle.
You battle to conceal your excitement and great sense of accomplishment. After all, you have beaten unimaginable odds to get here. You studied under immensely difficult circumstances – like the times you slept at the law library on a hungry stomach because you could not afford a train ride home at the end of that day. But, against these odds, you have become the first in your family to hold a university degree.
Your first week at the law firm is orientation, where you are shown around the beautiful building and introduced to all the partners. At the end of orientation, all of the candidate attorneys are welcomed to the firm with a lavish party, complemented with an impassioned speech from the chairman to solidify the warm welcoming. You then spend the weekend at home relaxing and mentally preparing for this journey on which you are about to embark.
Monday morning – you are allocated to a team and introduced to your team leader, Attorney X, who is white. As is often the case, you are placed in the employment law department despite having indicated your eagerness to be in the commercial department.
There are two candidate attorneys allocated to Attorney X’s team, yourself and Cathy. Cathy’s varsity marks are not very strong, but she is also white and they loved her at the interview. You both are given your first assignment due within one week; it is a fairly simple task researching an aspect of law that you are very familiar with. On the Tuesday, you are called by another partner in your department, Attorney Y, who saddles you with three additional tasks that you are to submit on Thursday. On Wednesday afternoon, you are instructed to serve an urgent application in Midrand. Fresh out of varsity, you obviously do not have a car, so you spend the whole afternoon in a taxi trying to serve these applications. By the time you serve on the last respondent it is 19:30. You rush back to the office but by then you only have time to pack and make your way to the Sandton taxi rank to catch the last taxi home.
On Thursday morning, you get a call from Attorney Y asking how far you are with his document. You tell him you can only deliver on Friday and he responds by hanging up on you. You spend the whole of Thursday night at the office working on his document, which you email to him at 04:00am on Friday. You do not get a response to your email and begin work on Attorney X’s document. You are completely exhausted and battle to stay awake, but you push on nevertheless. You come in over the weekend to finish working on Attorney X’s document, Cathy, your white counterpart, is not at the office. You look at her Instagram profile and realize she is in Mozambique with her fiancée. She completed and submitted her task on Thursday. It was not very good but she received feedback and immediately improved on it, then submitted it on Friday afternoon before heading to the airport. You submit on Sunday evening.
On Monday morning, Attorney X prints your submission and tells you it has typos and that you need to work on your sentence construction. You ask Cathy for a copy of her submission. You read it. It is flawless. At this point you have two competing thoughts: either accept that she did a better job than you or question the fact that you were given insufficient time to work on yours. If you adopt the former view, then you will do very well at this firm.
You soon realize that your continued stay at this firm is contingent upon accepting that you are intellectually inferior to your white colleagues. Of course, no one will explicitly tell you that you are inferior, but you will make this conclusion on your own. You will be retained as an associate, placed in a 95 percent white team where you will constantly be forced to question your ability to draft agreements, do research and even to speak. By the time you are up for promotion as a senior associate, you have lost all confidence in your abilities. You rely on your white counterparts for validation. You ask them to check every document before sending it to clients. You often spend the whole night worrying about what could be wrong with the documents you’re supposed to send out. Slowly your accent changes. Slowly your hobbies change. You start watching rugby. You begin listening to radio 702. You can now participate in lunch discussions about sports and current affairs with your white colleagues. Congratulations! You have assimilated.
Alternatively, you could look at the assignment situation for exactly what it is. It is a carefully orchestrated set-up that is meant to break you until you accept your place as yet another inept black. Big Five law firms in South Africa have been carrying out this practice for years. It is now integral to their functioning. Their institutional culture is anti-black and designed to break you into submission. Any black person who will tell you otherwise is either lying or utterly delusional. Any white partner in a Big Five firm who will tell you that they do not engage in this practice of breaking black talent, will be lying to you. As a result of this practice, the majority of black partners in the big five law firms have been broken such that they are mere uncle-Toms who thrive on white validation.
In order to protect and nurture black talent in the legal environment it is critical to build and support black-owned law firms instead of sending our children to the belly of the beast. It is also critical that clear-minded black lawyers unite their practices under one umbrella. We would have failed the next generation of black lawyers if we fail to build at least one big black-owned law firm in the next ten years.
*Matodzi Ramashia is a partner and founder of Rams Attorneys. This reflection is based on his experiences at one of the Big Five firms.