At the heart of the Absa Legal Khulisa Programme is an initiative led by relationships. When Nkululeko Khumalo first took the role of Chief Operating Officer at Absa Group Legal, Black-owned law firms were the minority on the bank's legal client list. And changing this mattered to Absa.
'When I joined Absa's legal department, I found that our spend with the Blackowned law firms was low and I wanted to find out why. It took us about six months to unpack all the various reasons by reaching out to various legal firms, and by engaging our in-house lawyers. The root cause was relationships – or the lack thereof. It certainly wasn't about capability, qualifications, or experience. And this is when our vision began to take shape. We wanted to build partnerships with Blackowned law firms where Absa could make a difference,' explained Nkululeko.
Thanks to this vision, the Khulisa Programme launched in 2019: 'Khula' meaning to grow in Zulu, and 'Khulisa' meaning 'cause to grow'. Absa now supports both emerging Black law firms and small Black-owned law firms.
The programme includes three elements: an articles programme; secondment of lawyers from external firms into Absa; and Enterprise Supplier Development funding, whereby the Absa supply chain can bring Black law firms into the mainstream economy through preferential financial support, helping them to grow.
Bernice Abrahams and Dudu Langa are the first graduates of the programme and served articles at two Black-owned law firms – CMS South Africa and DM5. Both candidates have now secured Legal Counsel roles back within the Absa Group.
What makes their stories so inspiring is their determination to become lawyers despite tough circumstances. Prior to graduating, both were working as administrators in the legal department and studying part-time to complete their LLBs.
Retaining talent and encouraging employees' passion
In order to be admitted as attorneys, Bernice and Dudu faced having to take a salary cut, leave the employ of Absa, and complete articles at a legal firm. As single parents, job security and their pension were an enormous trade-off.
'We recognised that as longstanding employees, a salary cut was impossible to consider for Bernice and Dudu. The Khulisa Programme made it possible for us to empower our colleagues to follow their dreams. Through our partnerships with the law firms, they were able to maintain their income while completing articles.
'It was encouraging to receive positive feedback about their performance from the law firms during their articles. Where initially their mature age may have been assumed to be a potential disadvantage, it instead became clear that it was, in fact, an advantage,' says Nkululeko.
Having been admitted, Bernice now works in the Absa Group legal team and Dudu is in the Absa Group litigation team.
Quid Pro Quo
Besides providing qualifying Absa employees a place to complete their articles, there are many advantages for the law firms partnering in the Khulisa Programme. They have the opportunity to send their appointed lawyer as a secondee into the bank for a set period, and these lawyers benefit from exposure to the financial services environment and the nuances of legal work from this perspective.
Riza Moosa is a Director at CMS South Africa, a dynamic law firm and participant in the Khulisa Programme. As a full service corporate transactional firm actively addressing transformation, CMS saw the partnership with Absa as an ideal avenue to contribute to developing talent within the industry. 'CMS has been involved with the Khulisa programme since 2020, and provided an opportunity for Bernice to complete her articles. Coming to us with years of work experience, she was an ideal candidate. Her strong work ethic saw her progress through our various departments, learning quickly, and taking stress in her stride. Being a part of this programme has been extremely meaningful to us as a new firm, committed to transforming the industry. Absa's commitment to transformation and their genuine interest in helping our business grow has made partnering with them a real honour.'
Another participant was DM5 Incorporated, a dynamic law firm with a reputation built on commercial legal services. Partner at the firm and Head of the Dispute Resolution and Investigations Department, Lerato Mathopo heard about the Khulisa Programme in 2019. 'Absa has been a client for a number of years, and when they launched this initiative, we were eager to get involved. It's a reciprocal agreement whereby we expose graduates to commercial work to complete their articles. In turn, we gain a better understanding of our client and build a relationship with them outside the usual client-attorney role. For a firm passionate about empowering Black females, Dudu was a great match. It was empowering to be part of her journey to become a lawyer. In fact, it was such a great experience that we accepted another Absa candidate in January.'
'We believe that, in a small way, we are contributing to the transformation of the legal profession, and what really matters is that we are playing a part in increasing the profiles of smaller Black-owned firms and helping them grow,' says Nkululeko.
'Hearing from both Bernice and Dudu that their children have seen their mothers work hard by day, study by night, and keep motivated to achieve more has inspired them. Their children are now dreaming bigger dreams for themselves, thanks to the example set for them, and this is very gratifying to hear.
'Many more are interested in taking part in the programme, and what's really exciting is that it has the potential to impact individuals, families, communities, and law firms, making the Khulisa Programme worthwhile,' concludes Nkululeko.