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Nelson Mandela's Birthday Marks 60 Years of Social Justice Lawyering

By Andrew Chow, Esq. on July 18, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Introducing our Ex-Lawyer of the Week: Nelson Mandela.

Mandela, South Africa's first black president, turns 94 today. Many are celebrating by completing "67 minutes of good deeds," one for each year of Mandela's anti-apartheid struggles, Reuters reports.

But Mandela's push for social justice actually began with a groundbreaking law practice he founded with a friend. The firm of Mandela & Tambo marks its 60th anniversary this year, and stands as a monument to Mandela's lifelong commitment to equality.

Nelson Mandela studied law at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg (before apartheid laws closed the school to blacks) and opened a law firm with fellow attorney-activist Oliver Tambo in 1952, according to the city of Johannesburg's official website.

Mandela & Tambo was South Africa's first all-black law firm. Together, the lawyers defended other blacks charged with violating segregation laws like using whites-only drinking fountains and riding on whites-only buses, UK's The Guardian reports.

The lawyers offered free and low-cost services for indigent clients. Mandela himself described the law practice in his memoir, "A Long Walk to Freedom," as:

"A place where [blacks] could come and find a sympathetic ear and a competent ally, a place where they would not be either turned away or cheated, a place where they might actually feel proud to be represented by men of their own skin colour."

Mandela and Tambo also held political meetings at their law office, but closed the practice in 1960 as Mandela became more active in the African National Congress. Mandela was arrested for his activism and spent 27 years in prison before re-emerging as a national and world leader.

Today the offices of Mandela & Tambo have been turned into a museum, with the goal of once again offering legal clinics at the site -- a living legacy that would truly befit Nelson Mandela's birthday and his fight for justice.

Curious about other ways to use your JD, or how ex-lawyers have found success in other fields? Check back here for more ex-lawyer profiles and success stories. And if you have suggestions for our Ex-Lawyer of the Week series, let us know by posting your tip on our FindLaw for Legal Professionals Facebook page.

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