TSHEPO SHABANGU, PARTNER AND CHAIRPERSON OF SPOOR & FISHER

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Ms Shabangu is a qualified attorney, trade mark practitioner and notary public.  She specializes in local and international selection, clearance and registration of trade marks, due diligence investigations and Intellectual Property (“IP”) portfolio management.

She is a partner and chairperson of the partnership at the almost 100 year old boutique IP firm, Spoor & Fisher.  She is the past president of the South African Institute of Intellectual Property Law (SAIIPL) and sat on the Council of the Law Society of the Northern Provinces (LSNP), the regional body regulating attorneys in South Africa.

SAprofessionals.com spoke to Ms Shabangu about her journey thus far.

You have had several professional achievements please list them and indicate which one stands out for you and why?

I cannot say that there are any particular professional achievements which stand out for me, more than others, but there are certainly those which I have learned from the most. Some of those that spring to mind include becoming one of the first black women to qualify as a trade mark practitioner in SA; taking part in the FORTUNE mentorship programme in the US and placed at a global law firm; being on the steering committee and taking part in the International Bar Association’s (“IBA”) Presidential taskforce on the future of legal services. I also fondly remember my nomination and selection alongside 79 women for inclusion in World Intellectual Property Review’s (“WIPR”) inaugural edition of WIPR influential women in IP 2019, and nomination for two awards at the WOZA Women in Law Inaugural Awards. The nomination and selection as WIPR’s Influential Women in IP arose as a result of a survey conducted globally of women whom the survey respondents believed to be outstanding in their field, and the WOZA Awards nomination were made to recognise excellence in the legal profession.

During my legal studies I held several jobs in departmental stores and as a cleaner which taught me time management, problem solving skills, patience and humility.  I learnt to juggle, prioritise and allocate time to what is important and this stood me in good stead not only in my profession, but in all other facets of my life.

Whilst I do not perform my work to receive accolades or awards, it is quite heartening to receive commendation or acknowledgement in fitting circumstances for a job well done.  My motivation when performing my professional duties, and in fact everything in my life, stems from biblical principles such as “The person faithful in what is least is faithful also in much” and “Whatever you are doing, work at it whole-souled as for God Jehovah, and not for men”.

Have you had any particular challenges as a woman professional that you think differ from your male counterparts? How have you tackled them?

I started my legal career in a large law firm and worked for a senior partner at the firm.  He was interested in the quality of work we produced, which is how it should be, rather than what we looked like.  I have encountered people who have doubted my competence without any basis due to prejudice or stereotypes, but I have also met many other people who have given me a chance. I would like to believe that I have proved the stereotype wrong.  I have learnt not to take things personally, and that the way people treat me is usually not about me but is a reflection on them.   I also try to consider any feedback I receive objectively and do not automatically assume any behaviour directed at me is because I am a woman.  If there is any criticism levelled against me, I try to find the truth in it and use it to improve.  If there is no basis for the criticism, or if it is malicious, I simply let it go without holding a grudge.

My experiences have made me more sensitive to the needs of others and knowing how hurtful it can be to bear the brunt of prejudice or to be at the receiving end of judgemental people, I try to live by the golden rule and treat others as I would like to be treated.

One of the challenges most professional women face is to find work life balance. Thankfully, Spoor & Fisher, provides flexible working arrangements. This helps a lot towards achieving a measure of work life balance.

What advice do you have for younger professionals who are looking forward to joining the profession?

Have a strong work ethic as there are no shortcuts. You have to be prepared to do the work and pay your dues.  No assignment given should be beneath you, as you are likely to receive and be involved in high worth assignments if you perform the small tasks well. As a student take part in vacation work which is offered by most law firms. Look for a mentor who is experienced in the area of expertise you are interested in and who can act as a sounding board. If you make mistakes, admit and learn from them. Do not hide your mistakes and be quick to rectify them.  In a nutshell, make friends with failure – I have personally learnt more from my failures rather than successes.

What has been the highlight of your career?

Reaching various milestones in the practice of law, such as getting admitted as an attorney, becoming a partner and serving as chairperson of our partnership have been certain highlights. My appointment as non-executive director on the board of Astral Foods, which is one of the top 100 companies listed on the JSE was certainly a high point in my life.  Also presenting locally and internationally on various legal topics of interest.  My interest in risk and governance has led to my participation in the IBA’s Presidential taskforce on cybersecurity and contributing to the published IBA Cybersecurity Guidelines.  Being a Council representative of the Law Society of South Africa on the IBA Council and inaugurating the LIFT AS YOU CLIMB mentorship program which promote IP, business and leadership skills are also worth mentioning.  More recently, winning the WOZA Women in Law award for the Best Corporate Lawyer 2019 (IP) was also an encouraging development. The WOZA awards are presented annually to women who have demonstrated excellence in their practice of law and have made significant contribution to the profession. However, what has given me the utmost pleasure in the profession is to see people I have trained and/or mentored attain partnership or assume responsible roles as in-house counsel or in business.

What principles and values do you think are important for any professional and why?

Integrity is very important – you need to be honest about what you can and cannot do, be realistic about work deadlines and do not overpromise and under-deliver. Basically, you only have one good name and it is worth preserving.  If you adhere to strict ethical conduct, you will not bend the rules to suit yourself, or to gain an unfair advantage.  Most important to me is humility to admit it when you do not know something and say that you are going to research the point and revert, to admit when you have made a mistake, apologise and indicate how you will rectify that mistake.  Further, it is important to think of the greater good, rather than pursuing self-interest, so it is critical to have a “we” rather than an “I” mentality.

Explain what contribution you have made to your current company since joining it?

As business development, client retention and management are very important in any law firm, I have contributed in growing our client base and in servicing them according to the high standards set by our firm. I am always alive to opportunities to grow our business, whether I am attending conferences in South Africa or abroad or at work-related social functions. I find that I am able to, fairly easily, get on with people from all walks of life. In interacting with colleagues and clients at the conferences or in a social setting, I have endeavored to grow the profile of Spoor & Fisher resulting in strong relationships being developed between Spoor & Fisher, clients and our colleagues. As women are naturally nurturers, I have tried to nurture my relationships with colleagues both in and outside the firm which bodes well when collaborating on certain tasks.

My role as Chairperson of the Spoor & Fisher partnership has allowed me to have in-depth conversations with our staff regarding the values we hold dear and to try and personify them. Those values cover respect for the individual, recognition of individuals who excel and go the extra mile as well as ensuring that the quality of services we offer is excellent as required by the firm.

Who stands out for you as a role model and why?

I can say that my parents were the first people I looked up to – their good example in raising us, teaching us the value of hard work, generosity, kindness, humility and service to others – are certainly traits worth emulating. I cannot pinpoint one person as a role model as I tend to learn various things from different people. No person ever achieves anything alone and people like Charles Stewart,  Stephen Goldberg, Jean McIvor, Judge Louis Harms, Charles Webster, Thandi Orleyn, Michael Katz, Advocate Kgomotso Moroka SC,  Judge Tati Mokgoka, Louis van Wyk, Owen Dean and many others in the profession and business have acted as sounding boards. I am thankful for their guidance which has been invaluable.

I have also learnt a lot from my colleagues about diligence and professionalism as well as from various business books and virtual mentors who gave insight on topics which are relevant to our business. Being an avid reader of the bible, I have made a careful study of the personality and leadership of Jesus Christ, whom I consider the greatest man who has ever lived. His compassion, kindness, impartiality, fairness and keen sense of justice when dealing with others and courage are certainly qualities which are for me worth emulating.

My children are also my teachers and their resilience, ability to bounce back quickly from setbacks, optimism and simple way of looking at things have been instructive. Most importantly, my husband’s steadfastness and support have anchored me, and given me the courage to carry on during tough times.

 

 

Where do you want your career to be in 10 year’s time?

Hopefully, I will be winding down by then and will have contributed in training young lawyers in our firm to take it to the next level.  So, I see myself as occupying more of a training and mentoring role at that stage.  I am also interested in learning languages and cultures of our staff and clients that we do business with. It is hoped that I would have contributed significantly to the cultural competencies of our firm.  Governance is of particular interest to me, and I hope to still hold some directorships on boards of companies.

What is your management and leadership philosophy?

I believe in teaching people the ropes and leaving them to get on with their work.  I have no interest in micro-managing anyone and that requires that we hire people with the right skills for the job and if there are gaps, to provide the necessary training to bridge the gaps.  As far as leadership is concerned, it is for me not a self-fulfilment journey, but it is about service.  Therefore, I ascribe to the notion of servant leadership, and where much is given (in terms of a position) then more is demanded in terms of stewardship, guidance and self-sacrificing spirit for the benefit of the people you are leading and the organisation you are part of.  It is also about setting the right example. Leadership for me is not about a title or position you hold, but about your level of influence and the respect you command. You cannot say that you are a leader if no one is following you, and you cannot be a good leader if you do not understand the motives, aspirations and what influences the people entrusted under your leadership.

My leadership style is collaborative and I try to get the team on board when undertaking any projects.  However, as it is not always possible to get everyone on board, one must respectfully listen to dissenting views, and in certain instances one must have the courage to stand alone on some issues.

A good leader should offer opportunities for upscaling the team and should push for transparency in the organisation and have the courage to be vulnerable sometimes and to apologise when they have made a mistake.  Further, a leader should foster a culture of saying thank you and acknowledging people for their valuable contributions to their organisation.

A leader of tomorrow would be one who is robust, a visionary, innovative and not scared to take intelligent and calculated risks, and I trust that I will be open to change and to doing things differently if it will mean that it will take our organisation to even greater heights in the future.

What are you passionate about/keeps you awake at night/makes you tick?

I am passionate about people because they are the driving force behind every successful organisation.  Therefore, I take the development, training and mentoring of people within and outside our organisation very seriously.  I also learn so much about myself and human nature when interacting with others.  Since I was young I have had an interest in what makes people tick and what causes people to transcend adversity and do so well. Mainly it has been their courage, faith and resilience which made the difference.  I am also passionate about our clients and strive to ensure that their satisfaction is paramount.  Therefore, our people and clients are at the heart of our business.

I do not let much interfere with my sleep which is so limited as it is.  My approach to life is very simple and pragmatic.  I focus on what lies in my control and do not agonize about what is not within my control.  When there is a problem that needs resolution, I pray about it and do whatever is within my power to resolve it after considering all the potential risks linked to the decision that I have taken, and then leave what is not within my power to change.  However, in view of the state of our economy and our unemployment crisis, I am personally interested in making a positive and earnest contribution to our firm so that it can continue to be a sustainable, successful business whilst contributing meaningfully to our economy and thereby helping with the reduction of the unemployment rate.

What contribution has your organisation made to the community recently?

At Spoor & Fisher we do not only seek to contribute to the economy of our country through our business activities, but we also seek to play an active role in addressing the skills deficit in our country through various initiatives, which I will mention below.

 

One of the most amazing initiatives we embarked on 25 years ago was the Adult Literacy School. It is worth highlighting what inspired the founding of the Adult Literacy School by Spoor & Fisher in 1994.  We were concerned about the lack of basic life, literacy and numeracy skills of our neighbours, which consisted mainly of blue collar workers in the Centurion area. The lack of these skills impeded their ability to communicate effectively and engage in normal trading activities on a daily basis.  In order to address this problem, the Adult Literacy School was conceived. Quite apart from the classroom curriculum we have been teaching our learners, we have been able to assist them with other practical matters, like how to use an automatic teller machine, send an SMS or sign their names on an official document.

 

The firm has also partnered with eDEAF, an organisation which enables deaf persons to have a productive and fulfilling life and career. Through this partnership, Spoor & Fisher has employed several deaf members of staff to work in our data and scanning departments. This initiative has enriched our firm and staff, and offered some of our staff members an opportunity to learn sign language so that they can communicate with our deaf colleagues.

 

Another initiative that our people are involved in, is the Kascare knitting project.  It is, perhaps, more convenient to donate to a certain cause, but to really give of your most valuable resource, i.e. time, that requires a stronger level of commitment which was demonstrated by my colleagues.  Our ladies donate their time by putting their knitting and crocheting skills to create blankets, hand warmers, and beanies and to donate this to Kascare which is a charity that ensures that the children in need in South Africa are warm during the winter season. Seeing our people giving of themselves so selflessly in these projects, has impressed upon me that they are really the heart and soul of our firm.

 

How has your organisation performed in terms of business growth?

Spoor & Fisher was established in 1920 and our focus has always been to build a world class firm which offers unparalleled service to our clients.  We seek to demonstrate our values of quality, commitment, speed and personal service in every task we undertake.  As a result, we have constantly continued to grow our client base and expanded our footprint by opening up various offices where it was strategic for us to do so, including on the African continent, so that we can offer our clients seamless service.

How does your organisation adhere to ethical business practices?

As with all the law firms in South Africa, we must comply with the Legal Practice Council’s Code of Conduct for all legal practitioners.  We also have zero tolerance to unethical behaviour, and have various policies in place aimed at translating our organisation’s values and acceptable workplace behaviours. The leadership must lead by example on this issue, and there must be no ambiguity as to what are acceptable and unacceptable business practices. For example, everyone in the organisation must be aware of anti-bribery, fraud and corruption policies in operation and the processes to be followed when there is an infraction, the whistle blowing procedures to be followed, if in place, how to deal with conflicts of interest and gifts received from external sources etc.

 

Is transformation a key objective for your organisation?

We regard transformation as a business imperative, and although some strides have been made, we still have a way to go before we can say that we have achieved our transformation goals and objectives.  Whilst it is relatively easier to achieve transformation goals on the trade mark side of IP practices, it is more difficult to do so on the patent side as one requires a technical/scientific or engineering qualification as well as an LLB degree to qualify as a patent attorney.  The Department of Labour conducted a survey on skills shortages in South Africa and it was revealed that there is a demand for engineering professionals but such demand cannot be met in view of the shortage of engineering skills in the country.

There is clearly a shortage of engineering professionals and it is a requirement in order to qualify as a patent attorney, to have at least a technical or engineering degree. How much more will the shortage be for patent attorneys, where professionals will first have to obtain a scientific and legal degree; spend some time in the corporate environment; join a patent attorney’s practice; and serve articles whilst writing the difficult Patent Examination Board exams before qualifying as patent attorneys? However, this will not deter our firm from intensifying our efforts to qualify more patent attorneys.

Transformation requires consistent commitment and buy-in from the leadership in driving transformation goals, and in ensuring that their organisation does not only have diverse people, but also creates an environment, which is tolerant to different people and is inclusive.  In some of my discussions with leaders of organisations both locally and internationally, the common theme that came out was the realisation that their transformation / diversity and inclusion initiatives failed as it was numbers-focused, rather than concentrating on building the culture of their organisations and creating an environment where everyone can thrive.  We have a Transformation Committee which keeps track of our transformation goals, and reports to our Exco, and we have held various diversity and inclusion workshops to raise more awareness about the importance of a diverse workforce.

How does your organisation measure the quality of customer service and professionalism?

It is important to contact our clients for feedback before they contact us.  This we do by simply asking our clients how we are doing as a service provider, or through conducting client surveys which can assist us in keeping up with their needs and priorities as well as giving us valuable feedback about our performance.  Our firm strives to have an open and honest channel of communication with clients so as to ensure their satisfaction.  If we receive complaints or concerns from our clients, we are quick to address these.  We continuously seek to improve and add further value to the work we do for our clients.

Our firm is highly regarded globally by the market and our clients. We often receive awards in recognition of the excellent services we offer – for example, earlier this year in London, Spoor & Fisher was acknowledged internationally by Managing Intellectual Property’s (MIP) 2019 awards as the “Best Intellectual Property Law Firm in South Africa” and as the “Africa IP Law Firm of the year”.

 

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