A Great Statesman, Mandela Also Inspired Fellow Lawyers

, The Am Law Daily

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Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela

In the late 1990s Masotti briefly left Paul Weiss for a clerkship on South Africa’s constitutional court, a body created in part to sidestep the country's more conservative court of appeals, which was thought to be more averse to adopting changes that would rid whites of the exalted status they enjoyed under apartheid. Masotti clerked for famous South African judge Albert “Albie” Sachs, a key figure in the antiapartheid movement who was nearly killed by a car bomb while exiled in Mozambique in 1988. The bomb caused him to lose an arm and the ability to see out of one eye.

Masotti says Mandela’s death has given him a chance to consider the significance of growing up in South Africa during that time, as well as the the late leader’s legacy.

“I’ve heard from so many different people today who just wanted to talk about him,” says Masotti, who met Mandela several times and has a picture in his office of the man also affectionately known by his ancestral clan name Madiba. “As a lawyer, he helped change the jurisprudence on race and socioeconomic standing.”

Upon becoming president, Mandela created South Africa’s widely acclaimed Truth and Reconciliation Commission in order to avoid casting blame and punishing those who propped up apartheid in favor of understanding what happened in the past and providing a path forward for the nation, says Masotti, whose wife worked for the TRC. (The commission's work included hearings covering apartheid's role in the legal and business fields.)

Other lawyers with ties to South Africa, who like Masotti now work in the U.S., have their own thoughts on how Mandela's leadership affected their lives and careers.

“For all South Africans, in particular lawyers, he had a lasting and significant impression on their lives,” says Bradley Silver, a former Kirkland & Ellis associate who now works as an assistant general counsel with Time Warner in New York. “Despite being so far away, [Mandela’s passing] still feels very close and personal. It’s extremely sad.”

Silver grew up in South Africa and attended law school there in the mid-1990s, a period that saw the country begin the arduous process of leaving apartheid behind under a new interim constitution. And though Mandela was elected South Africa’s first black president in 1994, the transformation of a nation long divided by a complex system of racial laws would be years in the making, and necessitate the herculean efforts of a new generation of lawyers.

Jonathan Mayers, a former Davis Polk & Wardwell associate who now serves as senior counsel with New York–based hedge fund Renaissance Technologies, says Mandela’s stalwart stewardship of South Africa was “one of the primary factors” in his decision to enter the legal field.

“As a white person in South Africa, one of the most effective and efficient things to do in fighting apartheid was become a lawyer to try and change the system,” says Mayers, who earned his law degree from the University of Cape Town in 1996. “In law school I had professors who in between classes were shuttling out to help write new legislation. It was an extraordinary time.”

One of Mayers' professors was Arthur Chaskalson, who was part of the legal team that represented Mandela and other defendants during the Rivonia trial and helped spare them a death sentence.

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