The late Pam Golding, one of Africa’s most successful women entrepreneurs and an icon of the real estate industry once said, “I have always believed that women can do anything they set their hearts on.” Such an evaluation can easily be ascribed to a doyenne of the Africa’s legal fraternity, Esmé du Plessis – one of those unique individuals whose contribution to the legal profession in South Africa is unparalleled – and deserving of acclaim as we celebrate World Intellectual Property Day.

Esmé’s ability to rise to the challenge is legendary in her industry, and she continues to blaze a trail for women, in intellectual property law particularly. Her ability to unite discordant voices is a strength that has influenced legislators and IP administrators to frequently call upon her services as legal advisor.

Esmé obtained her BSc (1958) and LLB (1962) degrees from the University of Pretoria, and served articles of clerkship with Adams & Adams. In 1963 she became South Africa’s first admitted female Patent Agent. Many other ‘firsts’ were to follow; in 1966, Esmé was the first woman admitted to partnership at Africa’s leading intellectual property law firm, Adams & Adams. Fifty-two years later, and women make up 76% of the firm’s workforce, and each year around 80% of the new candidates admitted for Articles at Adams & Adams are female. The glass ceiling was well and truly shattered by Esmé and today, partners such as Nelia Hickman, Mariëtte du Plessis,  Nolwazi Gcaba, Megan Moerdijk, Kelly Thompson, Janice Galvad, Jenny Pienaar, Bilkis Daby, Nishi Chetty, Debbie Marriott, Lauren Ross, Mandy Swanepoel, Lucy Signorelli, Nicolette Koch, Nicky Garnett, Nthabisheng Phaswana, Somayya Khan, Werina Griffiths, Sajidha Gamieldien, Jani Cronje, Nicolette Biggar, Alicia Kabini and Alicia van der Walt are consistently receiving international recognition for their exceptional legal work in Africa.

In addition to exploding gender myths, Du Plessis became instrumental in our evolving democracy when, as President of the Law Society in 1995 (another first for a woman in South Africa), Esmé was part of a ground-breaking meeting between the Society and Mr. Silas Nkanunu, then president of the Black Lawyers Association (BLA). The meeting heralded a negotiation process to unify and restructure the law societies of South Africa. Esmé was part of the task team to negotiate and draft an Agreement and new Constitution for a unified Law Society for South Africa.

Having retired as a Partner at Adams & Adams in 2004, du Plessis was, until recently, a full-time Senior Consultant. Her areas of specialisation are patents, copyright, industrial designs; international aspects of intellectual property law; policy and strategy principles for the protection and commercialisation of intellectual property. Esmé has retained her relationship with the University of Pretoria as well and served as a member and Chairperson of the UP Council for close to 15 years. She is the first woman in South Africa to be elected to a University Council, and the first woman to serve as a Chairperson of a University Council. She was integral to a cooperation agreement between Adams & Adams and in university’s Law Faculty in establishing the UP Centre for Intellectual Property. As part of the initiative, a specialised LLM package with four modules covering different fields of intellectual property law was established. Esmé is an Extraordinary Professor in the Law Faculty of the University of Pretoria.

During her professional career she was also a member of the Law Faculty of UNISA, where she was an Associate Professor and lectured on Intellectual Property and Banking Law.

Throughout her career, Esmé du Plessis has challenged the status quo and became a hearty champion in encouraging women to look beyond the canopy in working hard towards international recognition and equal career opportunities. Adams & Adams honours her continuous contributions and achievements.

Accolade Highlights

  • Dux leadership award (UP, 1960)
  • Grotius medal for the best final year law student (UP, 1962)
  • Award of Merit (AIPPI International, Vienna, 1997)
  • Laureate Award (UP, 1998)
  • Award in Recognition of the Transformation of the Legal Profession (LSSA, 1999)
  • Regional Business Achiever (Professional) Award (BWA, 2002)
  • Chancellor’s Medal (UP, 2008)
  • Most Influential Women in Business & Government (Legal) Award (CEO Magazine, 2009)
  • Membership of Honour Award (AIPPI International, Paris, 2010)
  • Presidential Award for Special Achievement (SAIIPL, 2011)
  • Presidential Award for Special Achievement (LSNP, 2014).
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