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5 Lessons from Nelson Mandela's Legal Legacy

By Aditi Mukherji, JD | Last updated on

Nelson Mandela, South Africa's first black president and enduring icon of the struggle against racial oppression, died on Thursday at the ripe age of 95. America's first black president, Barack Obama, paused to reflect that he himself was "one of the countless millions who drew inspiration from Nelson Mandela's life."

For attorneys, law students, scholars, and clients, Nelson Mandela's legacy inspires us to trust in our legal capabilities, to practice forgiveness over vengeance, and to doggedly press on. As he said, "It always seems impossible until it's done."

Here are five ways Nelson Mandela has left an indelible legal legacy for lawyers around the world:

  1. Providing pro bono and legal aid. Attorneys on a quest for compassionate careers can look to Mandela for guidance. His push for social justice began with a groundbreaking law practice he founded with a friend. Serving as South Africa's first all-black law firm, Mandela & Tambo offered free and low-cost services for indigent clients charged with violating segregation laws.
  2. Inspiring civil rights legal organizations. Organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union recognize Mandela's fight against "racial inequality, political corruption and the devastation of AIDS" as a daily reminder to advocacy groups home and abroad the necessity to remain vigilant in protecting the legal rights of the most vulnerable.
  3. Fostering LGBT movement. Mandela, whose gift of reconciliation led to South Africa being dubbed a "Rainbow Nation," was also an outspoken advocate of LGBT equality and greatly impacted the gay rights movement. He appointed an openly-gay judge to South Africa's High Court of Appeal. During his presidency, South Africa became the first nation to constitutionally ban sexual orientation-based discrimination.
  4. Launching divestment campaigns. Mandela and his African National Congress (ANC) spearheaded the pursuit of "economic weapons" -- divestment, sanctions, and boycotts -- that were essential to dismantling apartheid. Divestment campaigns, the use of concerted boycotts to affect change, are now used to bring attention to global issues like climate change, the fossil fuels industry, "Big Tobacco," and the arms trade. His acumen for creative problem-solving serves as a good lesson for all practitioners to keep thinking out-of-the-box.
  5. Empowering the voiceless. It's widely known that Mandela led South Africa to the first fully democratic election in the country's history. What many may not know is that during his 27 years in prison, Mandela would read William Ernest Henley's "Invictus" to fellow prisoners. The poem, about never giving up, resonated with Mandela for its lines "I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul."

With a fist raised in triumph for the life that was lived and the world that he changed, as President Obama said, "He no longer belongs to us. He belongs to the ages."

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