In between trying to spend quality time with her children and wife, Nozipho Mngomezulu works tirelessly to remain at the top of her law firm.
Despite the hectic-valuable time schedules that most Attorneys need to abide by, Mngomezulu dedicated time to speak to us on today’s A Woman Belongs.
Nozipho Mngomezulu is a partner at law firm Webber Wentzel. Webber Wentzel is the leading full-service law firm on the African continent with over 150 years of experience and industry knowledge.
Nozipho specialises in advising on all aspects of telecommunications, media, broadcasting, and IT law. She has extensive experience advising both local and international clients on all matters relating to the commercial and regulatory aspects of the Telecommunications, Broadcasting, Media & Technology environment in South Africa, including negotiating, and drafting and reviewing commercial, media, and music intellectual property licence agreements amongst many other things.
Nozipho let us into her world, and here’s what she shares with us…
Q. Tell us about yourself. Who is Nozipho Mngomezulu?
Factually, I am a 39-year-old black woman attorney, practicing law in Johannesburg. I am a wife to my beautiful wife, and I am a mother to my wonderful kids. I am also a daughter and sister. From a personality point of view, I am a wine, sports, and TV/movie enthusiast.
With a good glass of wine in hand, I can sit for hours watching sports, a movie or an interesting series. I love to laugh and to make those around me laugh. Humour often gets me through the harder days. I love music, but I cannot dance to save my life!
I have a keen interest in politics and pop culture – which can come in quite handy when playing “30 Seconds.” In essence, I would describe myself as a simple person who likes and enjoys the simple pleasures that life has to offer.
Q. What are your fondest memories from childhood?
There are so many! I absolutely loved, and still love Christmas. I loved the family get-togethers, the abundance of food and of course the gifts. Christmas also meant awesome trips to the beach and other excursions. I always used to look forward to the festive season. I still do. I would also definitely say that going to my maternal grandmother’s house during the school holidays was a huge highlight. I loved being with my extended family and catching up on what everyone in the street had been doing.
Q. Why did you decide to pursue law as a career?
It’s actually a funny story. I got into law for three reasons. First, I wanted to be President of the country and my research had shown me that a lot of Presidents around the world (including Nelson Mandela) had started out as lawyers. So, I figured that that was the path I needed to follow. Secondly, I also wanted to help people and it seemed to me, from the TV programmes that I used to watch, that lawyers got to help people on a daily basis.
There was always some document being produced by a lawyer at the 11th hour that would always save the day. I wanted to do that for people, especially those in my life. Third, I wanted to wear nice clothes to work. The lawyers that I saw on TV and in real life were always so well put together and had amazing style. I wanted that too!
Q. What does a typical workday look like for you? And what does your job exactly entail?
A typical day for me has changed drastically since COVID, especially because we had a baby during COVID. Previously, my day used to start and end with me checking my emails. I preferred to start work later and to work until the evening. Now, things are a little different. I usually wake up when our little one wakes up. He’s a good sleeper but wakes up far too early for my liking! After spending some time with him, I then get into work mode.
People often think that my day consists of going to court or drafting court papers. That is not it at all. In my 17-year career, I can count on my two hands the number of times that I have been to court. My workday is mostly spent attending meetings, reviewing and drafting documents (legal opinions and/or agreements), managing my team, trying to secure more work through business development, responding to (a lot of) emails and attending to matters relating to the general management of the firm. While “lawyering” is still very much a part of my day, it is definitely no longer what takes up most of my day. It is now a mix of doing legal work and management.
I do try to end my day earlier to spend time with my family but that is easier said than done, especially because I often work with clients from different jurisdictions and time zones. So, I will often find myself at my workstation after everyone has gone to bed.
Q. Your career kicked off more than 15 years ago. Contrast for us the representation of black women in law firms back then to the current status quo, and what challenges did you have to deal with?
When I started, there were less than a handful of black women at the firm. In my year, there were only three black women that joined the firm. It was the same at other firms. Black women at the large law firms were an anomaly and were few and far between. That has changed somewhat over the years. Black women are excelling at universities (when compared to their counterparts) and so the intake of Black women at the big law firms has increased dramatically in recent times.
It feels SO good seeing a lot of people that look like me at the office! Because when you do not see yourself represented at the workplace, it is very difficult for you to feel like you belong. And that is something that I struggled with quite a bit when I started my career. I joined a team that was mostly white and had to work very hard to integrate with the team. This was made more difficult by the fact that my circumstances were not the same as those of my white counterparts. I did not have a car and had to take public transport to get to and from work, I didn’t have any money and I wore the same three outfits week in and week out.
When you are in the minority, you are the one that is expected to do the work in trying to find common ground with those around you. The expectation is always that the newcomer must do the work to integrate with the culture and the people. And that was the challenge for me. While, in theory, it is your work that is supposed to get you ahead, the fact of the matter is that in reality, you need to be noticed first in order to get the work.
The work can only speak for itself to the extent that you have the work to begin with!
Q. What hurdles are you still dealing with today?
I think that with me becoming more family orientated, that has come with its challenges. I work in an environment that is very competitive, where your worth and your value is determined by what you bring to the firm. So that is, the amount of money that you have made, your clients, and the size of the matters that you have worked on. We are constantly chasing the “billable hour” and have to work extremely hard (with little balance) to maintain or better our position.
For me personally, the struggle has been how I maintain my position at the firm (and remain at the top of my game) and still be present where my family is concerned. I have come to the realisation that it is virtually impossible to do both. One will inevitably suffer. The system that still applies today in the workplace was constructed in a time when there was typically one working parent or person in each household. So, it was okay for the working person or parent to spend the majority of their time at work because there was someone at home looking after the household and covering for the one that is working. That is simply not the case anymore.
Firstly, the issue of there being one working parent or person in a household is now obsolete. Households are now typically run by two people that have equally demanding jobs, so it is very difficult for only one person to carry the load where the household is concerned. Secondly, both parties typically want to be involved in the running of the household and want to be present and active members of the household. That is where I am at personally. I am constantly striving towards balancing work and family. It is not easy. But it is most certainly worth it.
Q. The journey to the Top often involves people who believe in you and influence your success. Who are the people who played a pivotal role in your career?
First, my principal (to whom I was assigned when I joined the firm) has always had my back. We started off as Boss and employee and are now very good friends and co-partners. He has ensured that I get to where I need to be from a career development perspective and has always made sure to give me the right exposure where work and clients are concerned.
Lastly, and perhaps importantly, I had a small network of friends that I relied on heavily for support. We would always bounce issues off of one another, help each other out when required, and were generally there for one another. It helped immensely knowing that I could rely on my friends at work and helped me feel less alone.
Q. Share with us the Top 3 principles that you live by and how they have been helpful.
First, do what you love because if you do not love what you do, it will show in how you do it. Doing what you love also ensures that you are able to push through when times get difficult. The fact that I love what I do is what gets me through the difficult days – especially when I have to be away from my loved ones.
Second, be true to yourself and don’t be afraid to be who you are. You only have one life, and it would be a waste to go through life hiding who you truly are. For me personally, being true to who I am has made me happier, more confident and I would like to think more authentic.
Third, do not be afraid to have a little fun every now and then. Balance is very important. Take the time to concentrate on the lighter things. Life is so much more than just chasing money and success.
Q. Your scope as an Attorney ranges from Telecommunications, Broadcasting, Media, to Technology and this is just the tip of the iceberg. Out of all the aspects you deal with, what gives you goosebumps?
Am I allowed to say all of it? I love working on complex matters that impact our society and our day to day lives. Whether it be issues relating to prices of data, access to spectrum, competition in radio services, advertising disputes, data protection and privacy or important technology acquisitions. It is all very exciting to me, and I can go on for hours telling people about the matters that I get to work on. I am truly very blessed and very grateful.
Q. You are also a Partner at Webber Wentzel. What does it mean when someone is a Partner at a law firm?
In essence, it means that you are one of the owners of the firm (together with the other partners) and that you then become part of the decision-making structures. In a law firm that is owned by partners, most things require a partnership vote for approval and implementation.
Q. In your experience in dealing with various aspects of commercial law, do you think our justice systems are advanced enough to keep up with the fast developments in media, technology, and telecommunications, etc.?
Hmmm. The answer to this is probably more a no. The legal sector is notoriously very conservative. As an example, televised trials and hearings were unheard-of and frowned upon until recently.
People are now able to watch important court cases from the comfort of their own homes and don’t have to rely on media reporting to remain abreast of what is happening in the courtroom. This is something that has been very controversial and is still being debated within the legal fraternity. Also, relying on technology to simplify some processes is something that has also been quite controversial. However, I do think that the advent of COVID has forced the sector to re-look at how things are done. It is simply not sustainable for us to continue doing things as they were done previously. Simply put, it is neither sustainable nor efficient to do so.
Q. What are your favourite activities to do while you’re on holiday?
Sleep!! I’m joking. I love to eat, shop, and just relax! I do not like doing too much while on holiday because then that results in me needing a holiday to recover from my holiday. So, I prefer to take things easy and to chill as much as possible.
Q. What was the last book you read or are currently reading?
I am currently reading (when I can) “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man” by Emmanuel Acho, which I got for my birthday this year.
There was a lot to unpack in this instalment of A Woman Belongs In Law, and there is still a lot we’ll share about the Law fraternity in the next feature of A Woman Belongs In Intellectual Property. Lookout for that!