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Four things to remember – O’Regan

- By Kemantha Govender

Justice Kate O’Regan told Wits law graduates that there are four fundamental hallmarks to consider as they forge new careers.

O’Regan received an honorary doctorate in law from Wits University on 31 March 2015 for her inspirational leadership and commitment to social justice, both nationally and internationally.

Elaborating on the former Dean of the Yale Law School, Professor Anthony Kronman’s four characteristics that identify the practice of law, O’Regan told the law graduates that they must have a commitment to the public beyond the narrow interests of self, a firm or a client.

“We capture this responsibility in our legal system by recognising that lawyers are officers of the court; in so doing, we recognise that their responsibility extends beyond their responsibility to their clients, or their partners, to the courts and the administration of justice itself,” she said.

The human rights activist said that it is important for all law students to recognise that the practice of law is a craft that requires ongoing application and development.

“It is a realisation that to be a good lawyer means much more than being clever or knowing the law. It requires the development of your emotional and perception powers and balance and wisdom. There must be familiarity with the history of our calling and country because both remain tensely relevant to what it means to be a practicing lawyer today,” added the former Constitutional Court judge.

The third characteristic is the development of sound judgment. She said that developing the capacity for sound judgement is best done through the process of mentoring, a process that the legal profession should nurture as key mechanisms for the transfer of professional skills and values.

“You need to look out for mentors… seek out people who you admire and respect and who you think will assist you in learning your way. It is essential to the development of sound judgement.  It is also important to recognise the importance of collegiality – the ability to work with others doing legal studies is essential,” she added.

O’Regan concurred with the French political thinker and historian Alexis de Tocqueville who said that lawyers have a vital role to play in a democracy and which also relates to the fourth characteristic which is to remember the history in the law profession.

“There is a sense of history that reminds us of the past of authoritarianism and racism and which the techniques of law were used for evil ends. That history should never be forgotten by South African lawyers as we move forward to use the law to pursue the social justice that the preamble of our constitution seeks,” she urged the graduates.

O’Regan said that law is a very special discipline with special responsibilities and that the graduates must continue thinking about these four characteristics in order to contribute to developing South Africa’s democracy and upholding the Constitution.

On her award, O’Regan said she is happy to be a Wits alumnus and always had a very close relationship with the institution. “It was at Wits in which I undertook my first teaching responsibilities in the 1980s and I have had an ongoing relationship with the University since then.”

As Constitutional Court Judge O’Regan contributed to the high standard of constitutional jurisprudence and as chairperson of the Justice Council has been entrusted with the responsibility to identify suitable candidates for appointment as judges of the United Nations Dispute and Appeals Tribunals.

During her prior career as a legal academic, she specialised in labour law, land rights, race and gender equality and constitutional law. She focused on those areas that affected the most vulnerable communities, and through her commitment and dedication improved the quality of many lives.