SA's leading celebrity lawyers
“There are neither nobles nor men of letters in America. Therefore, the lawyers form the political upper class and the most intellectual section of society. If an aristocracy is found in this country, it is at the bar or the bench.” – Alexis de Tocqueville, in his book
Democracy in America
IN AN ESSAY BASED
on a talk presented to the annual meeting of the American Bar association in 2001, New York Law School Professor Richard Sherwin writes that Tocqueville’s view was that it was up to lawyers in the United States to apply “an almost invisible brake” when the American people “let themselves get intoxicated by their passions or carried away with their ideas”. How much has changed? If lawyers in the US were once perceived as a brake on popular passions, we currently see something very different. “Law has entered the age of images, and the best-known lawyers among us are show business icons – luminaries in the culture of celebrity,” writes Sherwin.
He added: “The lawyer as celebrity has become a willing participant in the mutually assured seduction that goes on between TV journalists and producers and the lawyer pundits, anchors and screen personalities who help make entertainment king.”
In South Africa, the tag of “celebrity lawyer” is bandied about without any real meaning. However, legal commentators argue that there are two types of celebrity lawyer.
Mark Rosin, a founding partner at Rosin Wright Rosengarten, a firm specialising in entertainment and media law based in Johannesburg, says: “The first categories are those who act for celebrities.”
Rosin says lawyers representing that type of client are often required to be far more than just a legal adviser, including also being a business affairs and strategic adviser.
Says Rosin: “That’s because celebrities often become involved in lines of work not because of what they do, but because of who they are. Their lawyer is expected to understand their business, their status and what will work best for them in the short, medium and long terms.”
If that’s so, what’s the second type of celebrity lawyer?
Rosin says: “The other type are lawyers who have – by virtue of their personalities, profiles and often expertise – become celebrities themselves. In SA that’s a very small group and they’re the subject of the media, like other celebrities.”
As in the US, there’s also a growing perception in SA that “the law is becoming entertainment, and entertainment law”. That’s mostly because there’s much more widespread and detailed reporting on trials and crime events, especially on television, says Sherwin.
Maybe that’s the reason why the South African public regards divorce lawyer Billy Gundelfinger as a celebrity lawyer. As defined by Rosin, you wonder which type of celebrity lawyer Gundelfinger could be classified as?
Finweek met Gundelfinger to ask what made certain lawyers the focus of the media – making them celebrity lawyers.
He says: “All over the world, when celebrities get divorced they capture the media spotlight – and we, as lawyers, are caught up in the flash. I act for celebrities. It goes with the territory.”
Another caught up in that “flash” was the late US lawyer Johnnie Cochran, who achieved “star status” with his defence of OJ Simpson in his murder trial. Cochran came to be recognised worldwide as a celebrity lawyer. He was quickly recruited for TV, hosting TV shows such as Johnnie Cochran’s Cochran & Company and Johnnie Cochran Tonight.
SA has many lawyers who have become household names. Wim Trengrove, one of
the country’s top advocates, has represented former President Nelson Mandela in a number of cases. Trengrove could therefore be regarded as a celebrity lawyer. When Finweek met Trengrove in his plush Sandton offices his response was: “I don’t know if I’m a celebrity lawyer. But I certainly enjoy what I do – to get an opportunity to be involved in some of the leading cases of the day. I find that thrilling and exhilarating.”
Not all of SA’s top lawyers are comfortable with the “celebrity” tag. Why?
According to Anthony Kronman, a Dean at Yale Law School, in his book The Lost Lawyer, says: “American lawyers today are experiencing a ‘spiritual crisis’. Traditional virtues of character, leadership and wisdom have been eroded by greed, competition and the loss of a sense of public service.”
High-profile cases have the power to transform any country’s judicial system – including SA’s – as the media attempt to ensure that important criminal and civil cases are reported on and televised to an interested public. That might affect SA’s judicial system, which is losing good lawyers to the private and commercial sectors as lawyers are being seduced by huge, lucrative pay packages. The spread of the phenomenon of celebrity lawyers, who are paraded in the media, could add to the challenges faced by SA’s judicial system.
Says Trengrove: “I think what is a problem today is to instil in all lawyers an appre-
ciation of the fact that law is an honourable profession and its purpose isn’t only to make money but also to improve the lives of everybody in our society. And leading justice where otherwise injustices will prevail. The biggest challenge for the law profession is to maintain the idealism of the law.”
Some lawyers are propelled into becoming celebrities due to their association with celebrities.
Top SA lawyer Don MacRobert argues that he isn’t a “celebrity lawyer” but accepts that the “Mandela case gave him a high kick”.
Another top lawyer, John Campbell, says: “I’m not one of those people who think that lawyers are the star actors in the stage of society. One shouldn’t overestimate the role of lawyers in our society, because they play a supporting role.”
Campbell says that SA’s Constitution has over the past 12 years created the potential for law to revolutionise our society for the better in a way that wasn’t possible before.
As our society grows in complexity, the role of SA’s lawyers also increases. Our legal system affects nearly every aspect of society and lawyers form the backbone of that central arrangement. In this current media frenzy epoch, lawyers worldwide are becoming celebrities overnight, as they’re constantly appearing on TV and featured in print. As in all democracies, SA’s top lawyers play a vital role in protecting and strengthening our Constitution and Bill of Rights. Yet people know little about our best lawyers who continue to do great work in our society.
Cases that are likely to be highprofile this year include the alleged fraud case of former Deputy President Jacob Zuma (Trengrove is to play a central role in that) and other top lawyers will be briefed for the trial of Glen Aglioti, the chief suspect in the murder of mining mogul Brett Kebble.
Broadcasters are already hoping that court proceedings will be open to the public so that they can record those trials – on TV and in newspapers – and fulfil their obligation to keep the country informed on matters of public interest by capturing the events live.
SA’s judiciary system is likely to be faced again with a question of opening
courtroom doors to TV and radio when Aglioti’s case is heard and if the National Prosecution Authority decides to recharge Zuma.
While some among us might argue against lawyers who like the attention bestowed by TV in courts, seduction by the media is set to continue. Sherwin writes that in the culture of celebrity “to be known is to be”. “And as everyone knows, to be known you must be on TV. On this score, the celebrity lawyer is the lawyer par excellence.”
Effective lawyers now know – and putting to use – what advertisers and politicians have known and practised for quite some time: How to get the message out, how to tailor content to the media, how to spin the image, edit the bite, seize the moment on the screen and in the mind of the viewer.
However, the question remains: Which lawyers are going to be put into the limelight by the media this year?
SA isn’t short of high-profile cases and famous lawyers. Here are some of SA’s top lawyers who have been enlisted by high-profile people in the past: • Johan van der Berg, a Cape Town lawyer who acted for convicted German fraudster Jorgen Harksen. • Kemp J Kemp, Jacob Zuma’s lawyer in his
alleged rape case. • Top Durban advocate Kessie Naidu, who represented Thint, the French arms group accused with Schabir Shaik of corruption in the arms deal. Naidu was also a Hefer Commission of Inquiry (Ngcukagate) evidence leader. • Marumo Moerane represented the previous National Director of Public Prosecutions, Bulelani Ngcuka, in the Ngcukagate proceedings. • Bally Chuene, an attorney for former President Nelson Mandela. • Nazeer Cassim represented Sandile Majali, CE of Imvume, in the Oilgate scandal. She also represented Israeli diamond courier Galit Kramash in Namibia in
related to a legal consignment of 27kg of Angolan diamonds. • Derek Mitchell represented author Ronald Suresh Roberts in his defamation case against The Sunday Times. • George van Niekerk, who represented Mark Thatcher in an alleged coup plot case in oil rich Equatorial Guinea. • Gilbert Marcus, a defamation expert, represented Finance Minister Trevor Manuel against 167 former National Party MPs. He also represented the late Brett Kebble and his father, Roger Kebble.
Despite focusing on the four lawyers selected for this issue, Finweek is aware that there are some other worthy South African lawyers. All those interviewed represent, one way or the other, the professional society of lawyers who call themselves advocates. They excel in their work and they’ve represented a number of high-profile people and can all be classified as “celebrity lawyers”.
The important fact is that with the tag “celebrity lawyers” comes a huge responsibility. The public tends to forget that the human tragedy it’s witnessing as a trial is reported merges with those other “soap operas presented for the audience’s pleasure”.
It’s not up to the American lawyer alone to make a difference, says Sherwin. “But if enough American lawyers were to actively seek personal fulfilment in their professional lives in pursuit of larger values, their contribution just might peel away some of the tarnish that has darkened the image of lawyers since the day when Alexis de Tocqueville celebrated a great democracy and a noble profession.”