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"Fairbridges celebrates 200 years." DR, November 2012:24 [2012] DEREBUS 63

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Fairbridges celebrates 200 years


This month Fairbridges celebrates its bicentennial – 200 years of continuous legal practice since John Merrington established the firm in Cape Town on 6 November 1812. This makes Fairbridges not only the oldest law firm in South Africa, but one of the oldest law firms globally.


We believe it is a myth that there is no future for small to medium-sized firms. Fairbridges has been the South African member of the international network of law firms TerraLex since 1999. Many other South African firms have similarly expanded their global footprints in other such associations. In 2008 we hosted the TerraLex annual general meeting in Cape Town, drawing leading lawyers from around the world. Being able to benchmark ourselves against the best that our colleagues in other parts of the world have to offer has revealed that we, as South Africans, are eager to deliver world-class professional services and are more than capable of doing so. The fact that small to medium-firms are quite capable of being viable was demonstrated by Fairbridges being selected for three years in a row as the top-rated firm in South Africa in its category (small firms) by PMR.africa (Professional Management Review) in its annual independent survey in 2009, 2010 and 2011, achieving the highest rating across all categories in 2010.


Further, the development of the legal profession in South Africa owes a great deal to some extraordinary individuals and Fairbridges is fortunate to have produced some of those. Probably the most illustrious attorney in the history of the firm is Charlie Fairbridge, whose name the firm bears. He was born in Cape Town, qualified as an attorney and held the position of senior partner for 41 years. At the age of 30 he was elected a member of parliament. In 1883 he became the first President of the Law Society of the Cape of Good Hope, a position he held for ten years until his death.


The independence of the firm is revealed in many cases recorded in the law reports. For example, it acted successfully in Kama v The Colonial Government (1898) 47 SC, which confirmed the right of the Amagqumkwebe Tribe to occupy land in the Eastern Cape granted to them by Sir George Grey in 1861. It also acted for the adopted children of the Griqua leader Adam Kok in their unsuccessful efforts to claim his annual payment rights after his death (The Heirs of Adam Kok v The Colonial Government and Others (1890 – 91) SC 67).


One hundred years ago, in 1912, the firm successfully applied on behalf of Madeline Wookey for an order against the Incorporated Law Society to compel it to register her articles of clerkship with a view to her admission as an attorney and a notary. The law society appealed and three judges of appeal upheld the appeal on the basis that although ‘persons’ could be admitted as attorneys, the definition of ‘person’ at that time did not include women. Today, 50% of our partners and 50% of our professionals are women, reflecting a worldwide trend in the legal profession.


Sustainability and continuity are not only what makes this milestone of 200 years significant. This event also represents and symbolises the crucial role that the independent attorneys’ profession has played in South Africa, from the early colonial era, through wars, political upheaval, apartheid, economic and social turmoil, to the present.


The role of law firms in the development of South Africa has seldom received the recognition it deserves. Of the three arms of government, only in the judicial branch is there this significant private sector component. Attorneys and advocates are not civil servants. They are not on the state’s payroll. But they are officers of the court. Their duty lies not only to their client. This is fundamental to the professionalism of lawyers in the private sector and why they value their independence so highly.


Much is said, rightly so, about the independence of the judiciary. But the independence of the attorneys’ profession is equally vital. The first port of call of any person requiring legal representation is the attorney. He must be able to act without fear, favour or prejudice. Attorneys are in many ways the guardians and gatekeepers of our society, to whom citizens look to protect and enforce their rights.


Much of what we do to serve our clients has assumed a far greater significance because of the requirements of the Bill of Rights, which must be taken into account in almost everything we tackle. Going beyond the confines of Roman-Dutch law to global sources has injected a new vitality into our legal pulse. Despite the sometimes clumsy blunders of our legislators (and at Fairbridges our library groans with much of the same from previous regimes), the many reforms in our law and procedure in recent years have made our jobs a lot more relevant and purposive.


Fairbridges will celebrate its 200th anniversary on the exact date of our founding with a celebratory dinner. We hope to be able to continue as an independent law firm for many years to come and are confident that we will do so, and that the attorneys’ profession in South Africa, of which we form only a small part, will remain a vital and vibrant component of our constitutional democracy.


Louis Rood is the chairperson of Fairbridges in Cape Town.