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Do well. Do good. Do your job

- Wits University

"Doing your job means that when you start climbing the ladder, help others along their way," Advocate Michelle le Roux tells graduands.

Graduation address by Advocate Michelle le Roux 

Thank you for the opportunity to celebrate with you this morning. Despite being a graduate of the other “best Law School in the country”, it is a privilege and a pleasure to be with you this morning. 

The combination of faculties at Wits and the fact that this morning’s ceremony will confer academic qualifications and honours on law, commerce, economics and information scientists reminded me of my first day at UCT Law School – now a horrifying 23 years ago.  

The then Dean, Danie Visser, came in to welcome us and put us firmly in our place. He congratulated us for being smart enough to get into Law School, and then pointed out that we were probably there because we were too squeamish to be doctors and not numerate enough for commerce or engineering. 

Congratulations to each and every one of today’s graduates – and to your families, partners, friends and the hundreds that are your unseen supporters that got you to this day – the cooks and coffee makers who kept you fed and caffeinated, the makers of post-it notes, highlighters, beats to study to and beds to collapse onto. 

When I was asked to speak this morning, an understandable panic set in. Graduation speeches are the stuff of legend. A cursory Google search turns up viral videos with millions of views of celebrities dispensing advice about wearing sunscreen, following your bliss to live your authentic life, leaning in and making your bed every day. 

I have no ambition to go viral. But it did strike me that what they all had in common was a simple message that you could take with you, that captures what you’ve achieved, what is celebrated today and all of the promise, opportunity and effort that lies ahead.  

The best graduation speeches seemed to dish out pithy advice and words of wisdom from someone who’s a little further down the road than most of you, to give you the benefit of their hindsight. 

In that grand tradition, my message to you today is: Do your job. 

Today shows that you already have done some of the jobs you’ll have in this life.  

You’ve persevered through at least 15 years of education to get to today.  

You went to primary school, learnt your ABCs and your multiplication tables and the history of our world and its geography and some of its languages and how chemistry produces everything we see and how physics explains everything we don’t. 

Then you went to high school and did the job of laying the foundation for this further study, but also of leading your peers, testing the limits of discipline and authority, securing a date for the matric dance and getting into an excellent university. 

Once you were here, you did the work required on your course outlines, but also, hopefully, expanded your view of the world, and build friendships with people who don’t look like you, don’t think like you and don’t come from your kind of home. 

Given that it would have been impossible to remain unaffected, I also assume that being at Wits in the past few years meant that you did the difficult work of understanding and confronting the widening, persistently racially-skewed inequality that plagues our country, creating understandable seething resentment. 

That you wrestled with diagnosis, explanations, complexity, the polycentric consequences of choices made or neglected. 

That you came to see the roles played by both privilege and populism in obstructing efforts at redress. And deepened your understanding of the nature of power and the dynamics of representation, legitimacy and spectacle. 

Now you go out into the world. Armed with a new qualification, some more letters behind your name. And you are asked now to find and do your next job. 

As a lawyer, you will no doubt do the job with integrity, diligence and competence, of course. But you must also understand what lawyers are asked to do in our society. 

I am often asked why I came back to South Africa since I’d been on the path of a New York litigator for 8 years by then. My glib answer was that it was “home.” 

But the longer answer was that I co-authored a book about the landmark cases under apartheid and in our constitutional era for which we interviewed the lawyers and some of the judges involved in cases that pushed our society closer to justice, equality and freedom.  

Our book introduced the concept of lawfare, where issues were displaced into the courts for resolution because politics had failed to resolve them – in the words of the John and Jean Comaroff who coined the term lawfare, class struggle became class actions.  

And I was struck by how we are engaged as a nation in a daily job of transforming our society and how law is one of the instruments we are using in that life’s work. I hoped that by coming home I could play some small part in that project. 

Apartheid criminalized, regulated and legislated racism – and sexism. Law was used to negate the humanity of the majority of our people. It obliterated opportunity and mobility. 

In our constitutional democracy that is only as old as some of you, law is a primary instrument that we are using to transform our society. 

Starting with the constitution, of course, and some of you will be social justice warriors in public law, vindicating the rights of the poor, and giving voice to the voiceless.

But in every area of our lives as South Africans, our law requires lawyers to recognise the context in which they work and to work every day to realise our constitutional vision. 

We repealed the worst of apartheid’s laws, but, to use the conceptual framework announced by Hale, some of its background rules remain unaltered.  

Law is a distributive and allocative mechanism – its express provisions distribute and allocate rights, duties, obligations and claims. But its background rules reinforce and reproduce our society’s distribution of power, knowledge, agency and wealth. It structures and protects, as much as it can deconstruct and hold accountable. 

As a result, all law can either reinforce and entrench power, or redistribute and harness it in transformative and progressive ways.  

I hope you will all use the law in positive, constructive and dynamic ways. 

My other plea to the lawyers is to do your job by first establishing the facts and following the evidence. Procedural opportunism is rampant.  Our job is not just to tell our clients how to do something, it’s also to advise them on whether they should. 

This is true whether it is tax law, the structuring of empowerment deals, environmental law, intellectual property law, labour law, family law, or competition law. 

All of this means that none of us -- law or commerce or economic graduate -- cannot do the work of advising clients or building businesses without a profound understanding of the social, economic and political context we are all in, and what we all need to do to transform our society into one that is non-racial, non-sexist, inclusive, diverse, productive.  A society of active, engaged citizens. 

As a commerce or economic graduate, you job similarly demands that you tackle South Africa’s low growth business environment in a way that will be jobs-rich to do your part in reducing our horrific unemployment levels, that will access the talents of all South Africans when you make staffing choices, not because it cynically earns you BEE points but because building teams and partnerships amongst our people makes business sense, that you will create wealth responsibly, recognising that your stakeholders include workers throughout your supply chain, your customers, your regulators, and your communities in which you operate. 

Doing your job means that when you start climbing the ladder, help others along their way. 

Mentor, drawing on your experience. 

Support other women in the workplace.  

Greet everyone, treat them with dignity and respect their perspectives.

Help build the South Africa promised in the Constitution. 

To sum it all up in a 3 part job description: Do well. Do good. Do your job. 

Thank you, and congratulations again!

About Michelle le Roux 

Advocate Michelle le Roux is a member of the Johannesburg Bar who practices in the areas of general commercial and regulatory law, competition law and administrative law. She has experience in class action litigations and other complex litigations. She also has an interest and extensive experience in public interest, human rights and constitutional litigation. 

Le Roux is an Adjunct Professor at the Law School of the University of Cape Town where she lectures in competition law. She also serves as the Chairperson of the Ministerial Advisory Panel regarding amendments to the Competition Act.  

The co-author of Precedent and Possibility: the (ab)use of law in South Africa and several published articles and opinion pieces, Advocate le Roux is currently working on a second book on Lawfare

Le Roux is also a member of the New York Bar. In 1999, whilst working toward her Master’s at the New York University School of Law, she worked for a law firm in New York City. She went on to work at a number of other firms, successfully arguing cases in the US Circuit Court, the US District Court and the New York Supreme Court. 

Whilst in the US, she won a multimillion-dollar verdict against a major retailer who was found to discriminate against people with disabilities. She has also undertaken extensive work to stamp out gender discrimination in some of the largest Wall Street institutions.