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Lerato Mathopo

Director at DM5 Incorporated Attorneys, South Africa.

Why did you decide to study law?

Growing up in rural areas the societal hierarchy was clear. Even as a young girl I knew that I did not like my place in that hierarchy. No one said anything about the position of woman but I could see it in my home, in my community, in family gatherings or school meetings. I did not like my place in that hierarchy. It was important for me to find a way to challenge that hierarchy. I always thought of education as an instrument for empowerment. I did not know any lawyer growing up nor did I know what work lawyers do. However, people spoke highly of lawyers. I thought that if I was to be respected like that I would not be subjected to the treatment endured by woman in my village. I would be allowed to have an opinion and a voice in my community. If I had a voice I could use it not just for me but for all woman to challenge our place in society.

What is your proudest professional moment thus far?

When I got an opportunity to spend one year in working in New York through a lawyers exchange program run by the Cyrus R Vance Center for International Justice, it was a huge stepping stone in my career. There were 142 applicants and only 7 chosen. I was also the only one from a small firm. Being a founder of a 100% Black female owned commercial law firm was by far the proudest professional moment of my profession. We wanted young Black female lawyers to be exposed to commercial law and be trained by people who looked like them.

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Looking back, what is one decision/action you would have done differently?

I don't regret any of the choices I have made in my professional life both good and bad as they have made me who I am today.

Share some major professional challenges you have faced, or continue to face as a woman in law.

Professional challenges for woman happen both in the office and at home. For those of us who chose to have families, the constant collusion between work and home is a challenge. When I started a family I was an associate in a law firm. Prior to having children I worked on projects that required me to travel to other countries. When I returned to work after my maternity leave I could no longer travel. I felt like I did not belong anymore and even considered leaving practice. My boss did not know no was he prepared to make any changes to my work in order to allow me to be able to practice law and be a new mother. The long working hours that lawyers often have to spend in offices also did not help.

When my partners and I founded our firm which was a commercial firm and 100% Black female owned, we knew that commercial law is a domain for male lawyers. Finding the space in the market and convincing clients who are also predominantly male, was a big challenge. We all came from reputable law firms and corporates however it was like we were stripped off all that experience and knowledge. Suddenly we were just Black females and not the lawyers who worked on major transactions in their previous firms. There was more focus on the fact that we were Black and female than that we were lawyers who were good at what they do. There were comments such as so what do you do at DM5 do you allow woman to breast feed in the office or how do you handle cat fights as if males in business don't have disagreements. There were also comments such as "you girls need a grey hair or a big brother", The market had doubts that we had what it takes to run a commercial firm.

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What are some practical strategies for survival in the legal profession?

People often speak about finding a balance between family and your work. I have not been able to achieve that balance. What I have learnt is that you give attention to what requires your attention the most at a time. You also need to "train" your family and clients to understand that your time is limited and you try to spread it as best as you can. Do not feel guilty because you are with a client instead of attending a school play or because you are at a school play instead of being with a client. Not all plays require you to be there and not all meetings need you to be there. You must learn to identify the occasion that requires your presence and prioritize it accordingly.
It is important to build a strong support structure around yourself. This could be a grandma, aunt, friend, personal assistant etc. these are the people who will help you to become your best either in the boardroom or at home. You can't run an important meeting while looking at your watch because you are late to pick up a child from school. You can't be on a conference call outside the school hall and not see anything because you were trying to be there for your child.

Finding your voice and being comfortable with it is important. It will allow you to reach greater heights because you set the standard and the pace for yourself. Understanding your strengths and weaknesses will allow you to approach your tasks with confidence. There is power in being able to embrace all that a woman is, use it. It is an asset not a liability.

Lastly remember there has been woman who have gone before us. Get a mentor, someone who will advise you when you get stuck. There is great benefit is having someone to bounce off ideas with. Someone who might help you see things in a different light.

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