inspiration from South Africa

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 A recent article makes the pro bono approach of South Africa’s biggest law firm look pretty good, and another suggests we can learn from the structure of employment law enforcement in the South African judicial system. 

SouthAfrica   According to today’s West Virginia Record, a recent trip to South Africa “surprised a couple of Charleston attorneys with a few ideas on how to operate a legal system smoothly.”  (“Firm wowed by South African trip,” Dec. 6, 2006)  The article notes:

Ironically, one of those ideas was keeping the attorneys out of it as long as possible.

Roger Forman and Jason Huber, partners in the firm Forman & Huber, traveled with the group People to People, in an effort to learn about the country’s employment law.   Forman discovered that, just twelve years after the founding of a new, post-apartheid constitution, South Africa has shown “mediation can be extremely effective when dealing with employment cases.”  The Record continues, quoting Forman:

“I like the idea of mediation and arbitration as the first place you have to go, because the lawyers are not permitted in that. And they said 95 percent of the disputes dissolve there. Pretty amazing, isn’t it?”

He also stressed that the people are “taking active roles” in using the judiciary as a final check on the government.  He noted, for example, that “he stopped to watch a pro se case where the litigant was ‘beating the heck’ out of the other side.”

SouthAfricaN   Meanwhile, according to the latest edition of ProBono.netNews,  South Africa’s largest law firm, Edward Nathan Sonnenbergs [domain name: problemsolved.co], is “Setting the Pro Bono Pace” (Nov. 2006).   The author of the piece is Lourens Ackermann, coordinator of the ENS pro bono program.  According to Ackermann, the Cape Law Society, for the first time in South Africa, now requires that all of its members provide 24 hours of pro bono services a year.   He notes that “this initiative has been met with varying degrees of enthusiasm,” but “No one has condemned it outright.”  However, most firms are “sitting back and waiting for it to happen. But happen it won’t, not without effort.”

ENS has decided to “commit each of our attorneys to 32 hours per attorney per calendar year.”   More important, Ackerman asserts that ENS believes it is “building a model for pro bono that is unique, in that:

  • “[E]veryone, from the chairman to the most junior member of the firm, does pro bono in the Cape Town office. Hours cannot be traded, nor is there a person or a committee who discharges the obligation on behalf of others, as happens in some firms. We have a clear policy; everyone rolls up their sleeves and mucks in.”

In order to organize its pro bono efforts, ENS made a striking strategic decision to set up a dedicated office in a poverty-stricken community:

“We set up a dedicated pro bono office in Mitchells Plain, an impoverished township created by apartheid’s policy of forced removals and situated on the harsh Cape Flats on Cape Town’s outskirts. Cape Town is cosmopolitan and beautiful, first world; Mitchells Plain is desperately third world. It is in closing this divide by providing access to justice that we felt we could make a contribution.”

According to the ENS website, this poverty-stricken community is “where we provide free legal services and educate people about their rights.”  And, work to “give a voice to the voiceless.”

Ackerman’s article explains that “Setting up office in Mitchells Plain was for largely practical reasons. The idea is to be as accessible as possible,” for people who could not afford to travel the 20 miles to the ENS offices.

He acknowledges that “Skeptics have insisted that this model can be dangerously disruptive to a busy commercial practice.”  However:  

“[I]t is precisely in meeting this challenge of ‘disruption’ and ‘time’ that we feel the essence of our pro bono philosophy lies. If everyone does it, everyone is affected, and it permeates the life of the firm, and becomes part of its culture. People are exposed to new realities, and gain new perspectives.

“The point is, on the personal level, where lawyers interact with clients they would otherwise never meet, something more than law is being practiced. Human connections are made in a society where these connections were long forbidden and fundamental changes are wrought because of these meetings. Small changes, to be sure, but cumulatively the effect can be enormous, both in law and in the greater rebuilding of a society.”

ENS considers its pro bono effort a “work in progress”, and “would be delighted to hear from law firms in the U.S., to learn from them, and share with them our experiences.”

shleppers tend to be a bit skeptical of law firm puffery.  But, the ENS approach seems both praiseworthy and worthy of serious consideration by American firms. 

1 Comment

  1. COLIN ENZER

    May 10, 2007 @ 11:28 am

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    I have a coloured friend (JR) whose family have been dispossessed of their farm to facilitate marble recovery on an international basis. JR and his uncle are without funds, but a successful recovery action would release millions of Rands. Is ENS able to see JR who has a very comprehensive brief and sets of documents? Otherwise can you suggest where JR can go?

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