The First Step

Posted on Oct 10, 2014

The First Step

This is an editorial article contributed to the 50th year Commemorative Edition of Responsa Meridiana.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a first step”. So said Lao-tzu, the Chinese philosopher, who lived in the fifth century BC. How true this can be of a legal career and indeed of any on-going venture. When one looks back over a career, one realises just how important the first step embarking on that career was. Often the significance of the step was not realised at the time and perhaps it was not even recognised as a first step. This only becomes apparent in retrospect.

In 1964, when I was a student at Stellenbosch University in my final year of a BA (Law) degree, an inter-varsity between the Law Faculties of Stellenbosch University and Cape Town University took place. It encompassed all sorts of sporting activities such as rugby, hockey and the like, as well as less athletic activities like boat racing (not the type done in vessels on the water).  A jolly good time was had by all and by the end of the evening a great spirit of bonhomie and brotherhood prevailed. At some stage during the latter part of the evening someone suggested in a moment of euphoria that the spirit of union of the two law faculties should be symbolised by their getting together to produce a joint legal journal which would publish articles by their student members.  “What a good idea” cried the assembled gathering.

Perhaps surprisingly, given the nature of gathering at which this momentous decision took place, what had transpired that evening was actually recalled and soon a plan came together giving rise to the creation of a joint editorial committee, comprising members from both universities, for the nascent journal. Thus was RESPONSA MERIDIANA born. The inaugural edition appeared later that year.

In the following year, my fourth year, I found myself representing Stellenbosch on the editorial board and the next year, my fifth year, I became the joint editor from Stellenbosch.  As a member of the editorial board I felt honour bound and compelled to write and publish an article in the journal. I had not previously done any serious writing so I would be breaking new ground it was therefore a novel experience for me. My article, entitled “Solidarity” appeared in the 1965 edition.

After a six year sojourn in the Diplomatic Service, I decided that I wished to become an attorney. My economic circumstances at the time made it necessary for me to have an asking salary which was three times the going rate of the day for that of an articled clerk. Needless to say it was a hard sell. Eventually I reached an interview with Spoor & Fisher, specialist patent and trade mark attorneys. I knew absolutely nothing about this branch of the law and had very little to offer the firm.  At a critical moment, my interviewer, no doubt searching for some reason why the firm could possibly contemplate or justify paying me such an inflated salary, asked me whether I had ever published any articles. I sensed that this was a make or break moment in the interview. I hastily told him about my article that had been published in RESPONSA MERIDIANA.  He appeared to view this news with favour and asked me to forward a copy of the article to him, which I did. To cut a long story short, I was offered, and gratefully accepted, a job at the firm. I have little doubt that my article was the decisive factor in my getting the job, whether on account of the quality of the article, or the mere fact that I had published it, I never ascertained.

I went on to enjoy a successful and rewarding career, specialising in copyright and trade mark law, lasting 38 years with the firm and served as its Chairman for several years. During this time I published a text book, have compiled and edited another, contributed chapters to several books and published in excess of a hundred journal articles. After retiring from the firm I accepted a position of Professor at Stellenbosch University and founded the Anton Mostert Chair of Intellectual Property Law. I have travelled a thousand miles since writing my article for RESPONSA MERIDIANA.

The moral of this story is that writing my article for RESPONSA MERIDIANA proved to be the first step in the thousand mile journey of my career, although I had no inkling of this at the time. It was the “tide in the affairs of men , which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune” (William Shakespeare – Julius Caesar). There is no knowing how my life would have evolved if I had not published that article and, flowing from that, joined Spoor & Fisher. It is certainly unlikely in the extreme that I would ever have got involved in practising intellectual property law (which turned out to be the ideal niche for me) as I had no predisposition to this field of law prior to joining the firm

The important point is that RESPONSA MERIDIANA gave me the opportunity and incentive to venture into the field of writing legal articles. As a student I had no skills in this area and little confidence to venture into it. At the time the South African Law Journal and Die Tydskrif van die Hedendaagse Romeins-Holland Reg were virtually the only legal journals in which one could publish articles and they had a distinctly aloof and ivory tower image.  Writing an article for publication in either of those journals did not even come up for consideration, by me, a mere law student. RESPONSA MERIDIANA provided an invaluable opportunity for me and other students to venture into the business of writing legal articles. Fortunately, I took that opportunity, for which I am eternally grateful. This facility and opportunity remain available to students today. RESPONSA MERIDIANA has gone from strength to strength and has come a long way (a thousand miles) since its tentative first step. But in essence nothing has changed since 1965 when I took my first step on the long road ahead. The journal remains at the disposal of students aspiring to become authors and develop careers.

I urge students to publish articles in RESPONSA MERIDIANA. It is the ideal medium to explore one’s abilities to write articles and to hone writing skills. While there are many more publishing opportunities open to students in this day and age compared to the nineteen sixties, for instance publications like Without Prejudice and De Rebus, none of them compare with RESPONSA MERIDIANA as a medium for cutting one’s teeth as a serious academic writer. RESPONSA MERIDIANA is the ideal training ground for the aspirant legal academic writer. At the same time it is a respected authoritative journal in its own right and articles published in it enter into the realm of legal authority. It therefore offers a double benefit to student authors. The opportunity is there for the taking. Carpe diem!

Prof Owen Dean