Sweet success in the big apple
Ten minutes before the deadline for this year’s Mandela Washington Fellowship submissions, a hesitant Njiramanda Mbewe-Boatey sent off her application, mainly to keep her nagging friend quiet.
There was a reason her friend’s nagging was so persistent!
Mbewe was not only selected to be a fellow out of 300, 000 applicants, but was also hand-picked to complete a Professional Development Experience (PDE) at the Urban Justice Centre in New York.
Currently in the Big Apple doing just that, the founder of Mbewe Legal Practice squeezed us into her hectic schedule, braving the six-hour time difference to share more about her incredible journey…
How big a deal is the Mandela Washington Fellowship programme?
It is a very big deal considering the level of exposure one can get from being a fellow. You get to work with Professors and Coaches who support your project by offering professional and personal guidance. My Coach, Jeanne Zeidler was the first female Mayor of Williamsburg and she has and continues to be a mentor to date. I have gained exposure to new perspectives, and I have developed a deeper understanding of various sectors.
I have connected with professionals, mentors and peers from diverse backgrounds which leads to collaborations, partnerships, and potential career advancements. In addition, because I get the opportunity to work here, my professional skills will be sharpened and I will learn new skills that I can use in my career going forward.
Your focus project is titled ‘Access to Justice’ – kindly tell us more about it.
I believe in the rule of law and in my line of work, because of no resources and funding, I have seen people struggle to get justice, let alone to know about their basic constitutional rights or fundamental human rights and freedoms. My project aims to allow me to travel to rural areas and villages to provide basic legal education to the people, so that they at the very least know the basics of how to identify a violation, a discrimination and what legal remedies are available.
As an advocate against Gender Based Violence, these tools can reduce violence and help marginalised groups protect themselves, for instance by getting protection orders. It is therefore my duty to educate them. I have also been educating on the law on radio, television and social media to also mentor future lawyers so that I can pass on the baton.
Have you always wanted to be a lawyer? Tell us about Njiramanda before the black robe.
Yes, I grew up with the gift of the gab (laughing). I started talking when I was 11 months, I can’t imagine being anything else, but hey you never know.
I am a Motswana, the first of four children. My parents are originally from Zambia but I grew up in Botswana. I attended Itumeleng Primary school, Sir Seretse Khama Memorial and Naledi Senior School. I had an amazing childhood, and my father influenced my character as he was the one who took on the role of taking me to school and motivating me and helping me with homework. That is why the phrase ‘It’s a man’s world’ doesn’t bother me.
He has been very instrumental with my career choices and for that I am truly grateful. My mother is the firm foundation whose shoulders I stand on, she is a pillar of support. I am indebted to both of them.
Which field of law do you specialise in and why?
Family law, which I didn’t plan for but it ended up being something I enjoyed. You get to see the impact of your work, by saving a client in distress or having a child adopted. Labour law allows you to also help those unfairly terminated from work and Intellectual Property law, which I’ve taken a keen interest in after my case against one of the companies. I also do Corporate law.
Do you remember the first case you ever handled? How nervous were you and how did you do?
Yes, the first case I ever handled on my own was an application to pay security for costs out of time at the Court of Appeal. It was extremely difficult. I was wet behind the ears and not as confident, and I was shaking like a leaf, I couldn’t even finish a sentence! After court I went straight home to sleep, I slept with my heels on. Surprisingly, my application succeeded, it was before Justice of the Court of Appeal Lesetedi.
Wow, it’s hard to imagine you getting so nervous! What has been your biggest achievement since establishing Mbewe Legal Practice seven years ago?
The fact that as women we have shifted the narrative about our capabilities in the legal fraternity or any fraternity for that matter. We have been unapologetic with our reputation and brand, we have created our own opportunities and we have served clients diligently and managed to handle high profile cases that have demonstrated our legal prowess while not forgetting to engage in pro bono work, community service and advocacy initiatives. Like our mission, we have been a legal service with a difference.
You mention community building and development, please tell us more about this interest of yours as well as some of your projects.
As human beings, it should be innate to know that there is more to life than self. As we navigate through life, we must remember that we are also to be of service to others. When we change someone’s life, that is priceless.
I do a lot of things when I have time. Other than taking access to justice to communities, I am involved in fighting Gender Based Violence through the network I founded called Baagisanyi Network. I also offer mentorship to the youth through Legal Ladies Botswana, I have registered community trusts for socio-economic development and I also go to schools when invited to motivate the youth. My project though will be to try and travel around the country to communities that will need access to justice and my skill.
Do you ever reject cases that go against your personal principles and values?
Yes, when I am conflicted I do reject cases but also if I don’t believe in a matter or it goes against my values, then it will be pointless because I need to also believe in what I am fighting for. I did take an oath though, so I do my best to give my best to clients.
Have you confronted gender-related roadblocks in your career?
Of course, even when I receive some letters, they are addressed ‘Mr Mbewe’ there is an assumption that it has to be a man. I simply laugh it off and correct the author. Also I have received comments about how some people expect to see this huge woman but instead they meet a petite lady. There is a belief by some that a lawyer has to come packaged in a certain way. Sometimes in meetings some people are condescending, but mine is to constantly remind them that it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog!
Some companies don’t consider us for representation, but I must state though that I applaud all those who have given us a chance and those who are making an effort in ensuring that female lawyers and women in general are also considered in business.
What advice would you give to the next generation of female leaders?
Do not seek validation. Validation is for parking. People will talk, let them, just focus.
I’ll keep that one in mind! So what kinds of things give you the most satisfaction in your work?
I love the law, that in itself is fulfilling. Succeeding in a case, changing someone’s life and clients who appreciate the hard work that goes into their matters.
Describe for us Mbewe Legal Practice’s culture
Teamwork, we try to work together as a team. Anyone who is not part of the vision gets exposed easily. Those who want the easy way out in life, or shortcuts, can’t be on our team. It involves actually doing the work.
If I were to ask those who know you well for three adjectives that best describe you, what would they say?
Assertive, resilient, and compassionate.
Share with us the joys of motherhood and being a wife. In what way does your family inspire you?
I have an amazing and supportive husband who cheers for me. He is very self-assured and celebrates my achievements as though they were his own. To have a supportive partner is a blessing I do not take lightly. Motherhood is my greatest achievement by far.
What was the last non-legal book you read?
Poetic Justice, a memoir by Judge John Charles Thomas.
Finally, Thank God It’s Friday, what will you be up to this weekend?
Exploring the city here in New York.