SA's lead­ing celebrity lawyers

SA’s lead­ing

Finweek English Edition - - Front page - GUGU­LAKHE MASANGO

“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

(1840)

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

a case

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.”

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