A number of young aspiring attorneys have just reported for work at firms across the country. These young candidates fresh out of university are entitled to expect and hope for the best. They are entitled to believe that they will get in return what they put in and that with hard work they will only ascend. However those cynical amongst us may be tempted to warn these young lawyers that they will not make it. I have previously written on the challenges of being a black woman in spaces that have a dominantly white culture but despite my growing fatigue and cynicism, I cannot deny that I have been fortunate enough to have had positive professional experiences.
We enter the profession with the desire to be taught in practice what we have spent so many years learning in theory, to be exposed to interesting matters and to be given the opportunity to contribute to these matters in a way that affirms our value not only to ourselves but our institutions and colleagues. This is easier to achieve with an experienced boss willing to share their knowledge and share power. I was one of the lucky few young lawyers to start out with such an example. Upon my admission to the profession, I took on the role of a lawyer with confidence and dignity thanks to my own hard work and survival skills but also thanks to a number of remarkable teachers along the way including my first white male boss, Donald Dinnie.
South Africa is a racially charged country and the workplace only replicates and magnifies the realities of our broader society. When I worked for Donald all those years ago I was apprehensive as to how he would treat me. I wondered whether my race and gender would be a struggle for him.
Historically the legal profession excluded the two things which I am — black and female. Our courts once refused the application of a woman to be admitted as an attorney, ruling that a woman was not a “person” as required by legislation. In Incorporated Law Society v Wookey 1912 AD 623, a full bench of the then Appellate Division relied on Roman-Dutch law and its exclusion from legal practice of persons termed “unfit and improper” including, the deaf, the blind, pagans, Jews and women. As one writer put it “it was considered a revolt against nature to allow a woman to enter the legal profession”. Even though exclusion is no longer legislated it persists in a lot of professional spaces. Before I met Donald I readied myself to confront an entitled white man who harboured these historic prejudices.
However, I instead found a boss willing to teach and share everything he knew. I now realise just how fortunate I was because so many young professionals are forced to develop skills through their own ingenuity with no guidance. Since my time with Donald, I too have had challenging experiences which have forced me to rely on myself and which have made me appreciate what a difference a supportive leader can make. Having a champion in the workplace is game-changing and when your boss and your champion are one person it makes a huge difference.
I am not just talking about a champion that is supportive but at the same time invested in maintaining a racial hierarchy that advantages them. I am talking about a champion that is interested in transferring and sharing power and disrupting the hierarchy. I never thought that one of the bosses I would come to speak so highly of would be white and male — two things I am not and two things that I, because of history, viewed with suspicion.
On my first day in Donald’s practice, I was shocked by its chaotic state. However, amid the chaos, a framed newspaper clipping hanging on his wall celebrating South Africa’s first democratic elections caught my eye. Seeing that image on his wall signified to me that perhaps these political milestones and realities would not be divorced from our private working space — that the country’s politics would matter in defining mine and Donald’s working relationship. Maybe our workplace could provide a vehicle with which we could steer the country towards a more just society. This slightly eased my anxiety but I was still guarded nonetheless.
After a brief exchange of pleasantries which included questions on my background, Donald told me he had an upcoming trial that I would be taking to the finish line. Entrusting an entire trial with hundreds of thousands of rands at stake for our client to a junior like me seemed quite negligent — but not to Donald. In his notorious fast-paced, slightly mumbled conversational style which involved walking and talking hurriedly to his next meeting, he instructed me to read all the files and set up a meeting with the advocate briefed on the matter. Not once did I sense any doubt from him that I could take on the task. He started our relationship with the assumption that I was capable.
I soon learnt that Donald’s practice was not for the faint-hearted but that was part of the thrill — it felt like we were always on the brink of disaster. As we scurried to meet deadlines, Donald was always unflappable — believing always that his team would pull through. He taught me that if you think the best of people they will give the best of themselves. I remember looking back at my billable hours during my first six months working for Donald and realised I had worked every day except for one Sunday. And I held no grudges because of the environment he had created — that I was in charge and important to his team.
Donald would defer to me in meetings and trusted me to run meetings on my own. He asked clients to confer with me directly if the matter was mine. He did not hog his clients, he encouraged me to build my own relationships with them. He nagged me to write for legal publications which was not something I wanted or had the time to do but he knew the importance of me branding myself as an authority to potential clients. Today as I see the value in writing I am especially grateful for all his nagging.
I did not expect Donald to take my career and success personally but he did. He, however, did not take my resignations from his team and the firm personally because he understood that despite training me he did not own me. I left Donald not once but twice to pursue my studies full time and both times he understood and did not make it about him. He let me go with the same ease with which he had received me.
My experience in Donald’s team was not unique to me only — there are other black women who worked with Donald some of whom are directors today with whom I still keep in touch with. We all fondly reflect on the experience we had and how unfortunate it is that this is an experience that so many people do not get to have. We all know that we are determined and hardworking black women who would have found a way to make it even without a boss like Donald but it is definitely easier when your boss is not fighting against you.
Donald is a white, male and from a different generation and I am a black female from a different generation, because of a history that precedes us and the baggage we carry as a result, the odds were stacked against this being a positive experience. I conjure up this experience with him quite a lot these days as I hear many horror stories of exclusion in the workplace whether based on gender, sexual orientation, race etc, experiences I have also had. I find myself contemplating whether white and black people can work together and whether men and women can work together.
There are so many structural inequalities in our profession and country and nothing of what I have shared above even begins to address these inequalities but I would like to think the positive experiences I had in Donald’s team does make some kind of a difference in the much larger question of how we begin to change corporate South Africa for the better. We can either choose to be hypnotised by the complexity of our current challenges or try to change things in whichever small way we can. My way is to start by looking at what it takes to create more inclusive work spaces. I have come to realise that even though workplaces are more exclusionary than not I am unable to succumb to my growing cynicism because I have seen the benefits of an including society and I am grateful to people like Donald who are committed to doing better. DM