Nelson Mandela: The Lawyer’s Ideal

by | 6 Dec 2013

Nelson Mandela at work in the Johannesburg office where he and Oliver Tambo practised law together during the apartheid era. Photograph: Jurgen Schadeberg

Nelson Mandela at work in the Johannesburg office where he and Oliver Tambo practised law together during the apartheid era. Photograph: Jurgen Schadeberg

Today [Ed: 5 Dec] marks the loss not only of one of the greatest figures of the 20th century, but also one of the greatest lawyers. Most would readily agree that Mandela was a great leader and a great statesman. Indeed, I still remember when as a child I watched on TV with tears of joy as Nelson Mandela danced at his inauguration, victorious. Not only was Mandela able to add dignity to the struggle for racial justice and save countless lives by averting civil war and helping to create a democratic South Africa, but additionally he has been able to inspire people all over the world with the example of his life.

But as a lawyer? Mandela opened the first black law firm in South Africa in 1952 with his friend, Oliver Tambo. As Mandela recounts in his autobiography A Long Walk to Freedom, during that time, it was a crime for blacks to drink at a Whites Only water fountain, walk on a Whites Only beach, or ride on a Whites Only bus. Because of Apartheid laws, everyday Black South Africans often ended up in court in need of legal representation. Not only were the white law firms often too expensive for Blacks, but Mandela found out through his own investigation that many of the blue-chip firms “charged Africans even higher fees for criminal and civil cases than they did their far wealthier white clients.”1Nelson Mandela, A Long Walk to Freedom 128 (1994). By focusing on providing legal representation for Africans who may have otherwise entered court without proper representation, Mandela and Tambo served as a sort of legal aid and public defender wrapped into one, fulfilling the core mission of the legal profession by providing access to justice.

After spending nearly a decade honing his lawyerly talents inside the confines of the courtroom, Mandela perhaps as well as any lawyer in the 20th century translated the core competencies of the legal profession into the political project of helping to create a democratic South Africa. As a leader of the African National Congress, Mandela eagerly participated in both strategic and tactical deliberations with his ANC colleagues, helping to craft the political and legal ideas that would one day drag a country kicking and screaming from the brink of civil war to the aspiration of truth and reconciliation. And after emerging from 27 years of imprisonment at the hands of the Apartheid government, Mandela miraculously sought peace and democracy without bitterness with the same Afrikaner regime that had locked him in a cage for a quarter century, during the prime of his life, because of his political beliefs.

Mandela’s heroism satisfies a very old standard of lawyerly excellence. Twenty years ago, Anthony Kronman, then Dean of Yale Law School, famously bemoaned the lost ideals of the legal profession embodied by the demise of the concept of the lawyer-statesman. Kronman described the lawyer statesman as a lawyer who not only honed his legal craft but also pursued the art of great statesmanship, thereby rightfully earning the respect of the community and the respect of himself. The art of great statesmanship entailed two qualities, “extraordinary devotion” to the public good, and “wisdom in deliberating about it.”2Anthony T. Kronman, The Lost Lawyer: Failing Ideals of the Legal Profession 54 (1993). This would tend to support wise judgment, which on the personal level would lead to integrity and in the public sphere would lead to the promotion of political fraternity, or “empathic pluralism.”

Historically, the lawyer statesman ideal had many shortcomings—most notably its narrow confinement to the confines of the white, male, elite white shoe law firm lawyers. But Mandela, more than any of those coddled lawyers, embodied the lawyer-statesman ideal while simultaneously shattering its limitations—from the grassroots to the prison cell to the presidency. During a century that saw the public’s opinion of the legal profession steadily decrease, Mandela’s reputation rose. He is perhaps the most respected person of our times. However, few have recognized that the values that Mandela put his life on the line for-democracy, human rights, and the rule of law—are the highest values of the legal profession, shared by many lawyers around the world. In all likelihood, Mandela’s life in the law played a significant role in the formation of his character as the greatest man in the world.

In 2013, it is no longer either realistic or desirable to revive the old version of the lawyer-statesman ideal. Law schools are having more difficulty attracting students, as drastic shrinkage of the big-law market has made it less likely that a young student can justify going into six-figure debt for the opportunity to become a white-shoe lawyer statesman or stateswoman. At the same time, the need for lawyers who can help low-income people with bankruptcy and foreclosure work has increased, and the desperate need to help people navigate the overloaded criminal justice system has not waned either. Finally, all of this economic stress has contributed to seismic fractures in our society’s social fabric, bolstering both the rise of extremism in domestic politics and international terrorism on a global level.

Recognizing Mandela as the ideal lawyer is the type of reorientation that would highlight the real tangible goods that lawyers can contribute to society today, including the ability to help provide access to justice and create civic cohesion. Nelson Mandela’s image should replace the image of the scales or of lady justice as the iconic image of the legal profession.

Justin Hansford is Assistant Professor at Saint Louis University School of Law.

  • 1
    Nelson Mandela, A Long Walk to Freedom 128 (1994).
  • 2
    Anthony T. Kronman, The Lost Lawyer: Failing Ideals of the Legal Profession 54 (1993).



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