Deborah Mutemwa-Tumbo’s deep love of law has taken her straight to the top. She is an attorney of the High Court of South Africa and co-founder of the law firm Tumbo-Scott.
As a boundary-shattering pioneer in gender and colour, Deborah’s story will inspire any young professional pursuing a legal career.
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What made you want to pursue law as a vocation?
I admired people like Barack and Michelle Obama, Nelson Mandela and Gandhi. The idea of law intrigued me as my role models all used the law to significantly impact society for the better. I wanted that for myself as well.
How did you survive your varsity years and your internship?
I have to admit that I’m a bibliophile and law school required a lot of reading, so varsity was a pleasure for me. I had great lecturers and mentors that really helped steer me and mould me as a student.
Internships, called articles of clerkship in law, were not a joke. It was two years of intensely hard work but also a lot of learning. While I’m not 100% sure how I survived, I would like to think that my ‘Type-A/workaholic’ nature helped.
What’s been the hardest part of your career?
I started out in some of the top legal institutions in the country. With ‘big five’ firms and the Constitutional Court, for the most part your career is set out for you. In a top firm, you will specialise in one particular area of law. And from the Constitutional Court, you usually go to the bar and become an advocate.
So, finding a career path that was right for me required some boldness, thinking out of the box and walking the road less travelled. Figuring it out as I went was difficult, but I’m glad I trusted my instincts and forged my own path.
What is the best part of your working day?
As a professional, and as a business woman, the best part of my day is closing a deal or securing a client, this can happen at any point in the day – but nothing beats that feeling.
How did you network at the start of your career?
Starting out, it is important to network among your peers. You are all starting at the same place but your careers will take you to different places and stations in life – I’m glad I made those connections when I did. Another great way to network was through mentors and sponsors.
If you could choose anyone in the world to be your mentor, who would it be?
Folorunso Alakija, who is one of Africa’s wealthiest women. The woman is incredibly industrious and has been successful, but she is also a philanthropist. I want to know how she does it all!
What is the one thing you wish people had told you about your career that you didn’t know going in?
I knew I would need to put in the hard work. However, I was not prepared for the lack of transformation in the legal fraternity – it came as a huge shock. The lack of change drives a lot of people, women and people of colour alike, from the profession.
But the legal profession is a noble one, so I’m navigating it and pushing the boundaries because, for me, it’s too beautiful to give up.
See Deborah on Curveball – our special webcast with Maps Maponyane
How do you manage your time?
It would be criminal not to give all due credit to my PA. Before I had an assistant, it was a struggle and required a lot of discipline. One thing I tried to do was manage my time in minutes, not hours or days. and that was easier to do as lawyers sell time and measure every minute of billable time.
Late at night or very early morning. I do my best work and thinking in the silence of the night.
What is the hardest financial lesson you’ve learned?
Compound interest is important, so keep your savings long-term. Don’t spend what you have saved. I wish I had kept certain savings that I had going from earlier on in my career.
Do you struggle to save money?
No, saving is a priority. I practise the ‘pay yourself first’ rule.
The first thing I do when I get paid is to give what I can and then pay myself through savings. I have to get creative about paying everybody else; rather, I’m forced to put the right disciplines in place.
What advice would you give other young professionals?
Nobody, not even your family, owes you anything. Your success is yours alone, nobody else will nurture it and grow it for you. Take ownership of it.
What assumption about young people would you want to change?
That we are all lazy or entitled. Nothing is further from the truth, although I imagine there are exceptions in every generation.