Excellence, transformation and digital migration top Nomlayo Mabhena’s agenda
Nomlayo Mabhena is the youngest-ever black female attorney admitted as a conveyancer. She was 23 years old when she passed the exam. Raised in Olievenhoutbosch by primary school teacher parents, she has carved out a career based on excellence and an acute appreciation for the need for justice.
After matriculating from Blue Hills College, she studied towards her LLB degree at the University of Pretoria, and started her articles at Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr in 2017. “I hope to bring inspiration to the legal industry for the next generation of practitioners to do and view things differently,” says Mabhena.
Mabhena is a staunch believer in the pursuit of excellence. She says that when the going gets tough, that is the time to push harder. Never, she believes, lower standards as that is counter-productive – especially when pursuing transformation. She wants to use her career achievement to inspire a culture of achieving excellence.
“Sometimes, our generation seems to fall into the trap that if something is difficult, the answer is to lower the standards. For example, our matric pass mark has been lowered to 30% in three subjects, and 40% in three others. This has done nothing to help our education system.
“In the legal sphere, due to the high failure rate of the conveyancing exam, there have been proposals that the conveyancing exam be reviewed and written over a period of three days as opposed to one.”
Mabhena says the reason for the proposal to change the exam is a perception that the current exam is used as a gatekeeping exercise, aimed at keeping out previously disadvantaged people in order to maintain the status quo. However, instead of lowering the bar to allow more people in, more people need to raise the bar and they need role models to show this is possible, she believes.
“I believe that previously disadvantaged people, in this case black people, do not need the standards lowered for them to gain access into fields such as conveyancing. For this reason, I have pushed myself to prove that a young, black female can pass an exam that has a 9% to 14% pass rate and practice at one of the top five law firms in the country.
“So, what I hope to bring to the legal industry is a new face which will inspire the next generation not only to meet the current standards but to go over and above that and raise the bar.”
Mabhena says she would like to use her career to play an active role in changing the narrative around black female practitioners in the industry.
The wheels of law turn slowly, she says. “This is why we still find attorneys who have trouble briefing advocates from previously disadvantaged demographics as their competence is always under scrutiny. Instead of creating an appearance of equal briefing by slapping a brief or two on a black advocate’s desk, I endeavour to contribute to changing the current briefing patterns through presenting equal opportunities.”
A child of the digital generation, Mabhena adds that she would love to be part of developing an electronic court filing system.
“There are many factors that hinder access to justice in this country,” says Mabhena. “One is the abhorrent court filing system where files are lost every day. Given the technological advancements in our generation, there is no reason why we have not developed an electronic filing system,” she says.
1. Why did you choose law?
“When I was 9 years old, I read a book called The Innocent Prisoner by Kwasi Koranteng, which is a story of a young Ghanaian man who is plans to train as a doctor in the US but is arrested at the airport when cocaine is planted in his suitcase. Reading that book solidified my decision to study law and it awakened in me a love for justice which has seized me ever since.”
2. How did you feel when you realised you were the youngest-ever black female conveyancer?
“I was ecstatic! I was incredibly humbled because not ever in my life did I think something that incredible would happen to a girl from Olievenhoutbosch who used to walk to school in Midrand reading her Harry Potter books.”
3. What are your hobbies?
“Beside a whole lot of reading, I enjoy watching cricket. I generally spend my free time reading; I am a huge fan of Afghan as well as African literature.”
4. Anything about you that would surprise your colleagues?
“I was an avid Harry Potter reader from childhood and have been a huge fan ever since. So, I have a collection of Harry Potter artifacts.”
5. Do you participate in any volunteer work?
“I participate in Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr CSR projects such as the Come Together Children’s Home and Santa Shoebox. I also am a CDH blue heart volunteer. Sometimes I help my brother at the Vocational Bible School that he runs on Saturdays in Olievenhoutbosch, at the Walter Sisulu Primary School.
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