Time to change

The frightening reality that black lawyers are still being undermined by the big players in the corporate world has prompted Andiswa Ndoni, the newly appointed boss of the Black Lawyers Association, to declare 2008 a year for change.

The frightening reality that black lawyers are still being undermined by the big players in the corporate world has prompted Andiswa Ndoni, the newly appointed boss of the Black Lawyers Association, to declare 2008 a year for change.

Ndoni, 40, the first woman to take up the top job, has vowed to be "in the faces" of the main players in the corporate world as well as government departments to ensure that more black lawyers benefit from BEE deals.

Ndoni, a legal adviser and company secretary for Teba Bank, is no stranger to leadership positions.

She has been a member of the BLA's national executive committee for six years. As its director, she repositioned the legal education centre and turned it into a leading training centre for black empowerment in the legal fraternity.

She also founded the Practical Law School in East London, her home town.

Ndoni's passion for law emerged during her school days when she used to help her late father, Amos, a renowned attorney, to prepare cases, especially helping to take statements from her father's clients during consultations.

The single mother of two daughters aged 13 and 11 is confident that with her at the helm of the BLA, the alarmingly low percentage of black lawyers playing a pivotal role in the corporate world is going to be a thing of the past.

Q: What is the current statistic of black lawyers participating in commercial agreements?

A: It is probably 0,01percent. In fact, the BEE baseline report that was commissioned by the black business working group shows that no attention is paid to procurement, especially from black service providers.

Q: Why the low percentage? Could it be that black lawyers sell themselves short or doubt their own capabilities?

A: The problem with law, just like in any other profession, is that you depend on a client. You advertise your services, build skills and capacity, but your success ultimately depends on a client giving you work.

This situation confirms once more the relevance of the BLA because legal work is still being given on the basis of colour. The BLA needs to address these issues and that is going to be my main focus in 2008.

Q: What is your mandate?

A: To make sure that we have as many black lawyers as possible, but more than that, to ensure that those black lawyers get quality legal work so that they can sustain their practices and train more lawyers.

Q: And what has been the biggest challenge facing the BLA to date?

A: Economic empowerment. As with most people, lawyers also complain that they are not benefiting from BEE. Although there is a lot of construction work taking place in South Africa and all of them involve legal skills, we hardly see black firms participating in those big deals. That is our concern.

Q: Apart from the big players who are seemingly marginalising black lawyers, what else is hindering their success?

A: I think that black lawyers, like most other people, find ourselves trapped in the perception that we are not skilled enough for big jobs.

Q: As the new president, what do you plan to do to change that perception?

A: I want to be in their faces. Parastatals enter into big commercial agreements and that is where we should start. We have seen that corporate South Africa takes time to transform, so as much as we will engage them, we feel that the government has a responsibility to ensure that black lawyers get the required commercial skills. The only way to obtain these skills is to participate in commercial agreements. Skills are not acquired by just reading books, it's about learning and doing.

Q: But has the BLA done anything to change the situation?

A: The BLA's legal education centre has in the past year alone trained no less than 900 black lawyers in commercial law. The training is ongoing, to ensure that our lawyers meet the required standards. But, most importantly, people need opportunities to improve themselves. Teba Bank gave me that opportunity.

Q: Did your appointment come as a surprise to you?

A: I wasn't expecting it, but I am very excited about it. I am aware of the challenges that lie ahead, because as the first black woman president, the spotlight is on me. They want to see changes that they could not accomplish in about 30 years.

Q: Are women lawyers taking an interest in commercial law?

A: There are very few black women specialising in commercial law. While some have made it in the corporate world, the numbers leave much to be desired.

Interestingly, there are more women enrolling for law degrees, but they end up getting lost in practice. Many of them do not even practise because they do not get commercial work. Not so long ago in a radio interview, a listener called in to say that she was told that black lawyers have no place in the corporate world. That is sad.

Q: How do you balance your roles as a mother and career woman?

A: It is always difficult, especially if you are a single parent, but the challenge is always to be aware that you must balance the scale. And when you do get time to spend with your children and family, it must be quality time.

Q: What advice do you have for young women aspiring to become lawyers?

A: I'd say that when they do their articles they must go to commercial law firms because that is the future. They must never give up and should remember that nothing is given on a silver platter. Hard work, perseverance and having confidence in yourself always pays off in the end.