Ralph Michael Ertner, German lawyer, lives and works in South Africa as a lawyer, consultant and entrepreneur. ABOWI asks: An interview about globalization, South African economy, cultural differences and tips for law students.
The southern tip of the African continent is one of the most diverse countries in the world and is nicknamed the ‚Rainbow Nation‘. Besides the fascinating nature that attracts people from all over the world, South Africa has a diverse cultural landscape that still wrestles with shadows of apartheid. On the African continent, South Africa is the only country among the G20 economic powers.
ABOWI – Across Borders with Information – is seeking 197 lawyers* from 197 countries around the world. It asks questions about personal experiences as lawyers, cultural differences, digitalization and globalization. The project developed from my curiosity to look beyond the German law books during the pandemic. In our interview series, lawyers around the world share their experiences, tips and tricks that can be helpful to anyone studying law.
Josefine Antonia Schulte: Please introduce yourself briefly, what is your name, where are you from and how long have you been practicing law?
Ralph M Ertner: My name is Ralph Michael Ertner, born in Berlin. I hold both German State Law Examinations and a South African Master of Law and have been practicing law since 1992, first in Berlin, then in Munich, then Cape Town (South Africa) and now in Pretoria (South Africa). In 1995 I founded Into SA, a company that provides legal advice to major international companies setting up in Southern Africa or establishing branches or brands in Africa.
As the author of 8 books, 12 annual reports and 3 manuals on the legal, economic and fiscal conditions of investment in Southern Africa, I have become very involved in the subject.
Since 1998 I have been a Rotarian and founder of two Rotary Clubs as well as past President of several Rotary Clubs in South Africa, founder of the Spanish-South African Chamber of Commerce and past Director of the German as well as the Austrian Chambers of Commerce in South Africa.
I am currently Counsillor of the Johannesburg Chamber of Commerce and Committee Chairman of SAUBC, the Chamber of Chambers, on the reorganization of the political legal structures in South Africa.
Josefine Antonia Schulte: What made you decide to become a lawyer?
Attorney Ralph M Ertner: I had previously trained as a bank clerk, and in the course of that, part of my training involved legal principles, laws and regulations. My fascination was sparked by a field in which texts like instructions regulate and determine people’s lives, so I chose this path.
Josefine Antonia Schulte: What is your focus in law?
Attorney Ralph M Ertner: My main areas of expertise are corporate law, tax law, contract law, BEE (Black Econmic Empowerment), licensing and trademark law, and public administrative law.
Josefine Antonia Schulte: How do you rate the social recognition of a legal career in Germany?
Lawyer Ralph M Ertner: To my recollection, lawyers are much more highly recognized in Germany than in South Africa. Here, there is a comparable high recognition only for the advocates, the lawyers who are admitted to the Supreme Court.
Josefine Antonia Schulte: What challenges do you face every day as a lawyer?
Attorney Ralph M Ertner: Predominantly with the inadequacies and wrong decisions of the South African authorities as well as with an ill-conceived policy and with the highly volatile key figures of the economy.
Josefine Antonia Schulte: You are a local lawyer, but at the same time you live in a globalized world. How does international cooperation work?
Attorney Ralph M Ertner: My daily work is to bring international economic interests and legal requirements to a common denominator. Since we are active in many African countries and work for companies from all over the world, globalized thinking combined with daily international communication is inevitable, but thankfully also possible.
The Internet, Zoom, WhatsApp and Google Cloud are just some of the indispensable aids for operating internationally today.
Josefine Antonia Schulte: How international are lawyers in Germany in terms of language?
Lawyer Ralph M Ertner: In my experience, completely inadequate. Apart from a few law firms with international connections, only a few firms manage to look beyond the local horizon.
Josefine Antonia Schulte: In your experience, how high is the demand for international cases and clients?
Attorney Ralph M Ertner: We have 100 percent demand for international clients; all cases are international.
Josefine Antonia Schulte: What kind of legal advice is particularly in demand from your international clients?
Lawyer Ralph M Ertner: Advice on local peculiarities, i.e. deviations in African law from European, US or even Sharia law. In addition, the explanation of laws that do not exist in their countries, such as the Black Economic Empowerment, which strengthens and protects the rights and position of the population groups formerly disadvantaged under apartheid.
Josefine Antonia Schulte: What do you think about specializing in international law during your main studies?
Ralph M Ertner: For anyone who would like to practice outside of Germany and the EU, absolutely. However, this only concerns the general areas of law such as Maritime Law, UN Sales Law and the law of various communities of interest. The laws in the individual 200 countries are too different to generally prepare for everything.
I consider it important to learn the tools of the law, how to structure contracts, and the ability to conduct legal negotiations. In my opinion, that is neglected in universities today.
Josefine Antonia Schulte: From your experience in your professional life, how meaningful is the decision to pursue a career in law? Would you choose it again?
Attorney Ralph M Ertner: Anytime, I love my profession, but it is clearly different from the traditional legal profession in Germany.
Josefine Antonia Schulte: If you could only give law students one piece of advice, what would it be?
Attorney Ralph M Ertner: My advice is to learn as much as possible in practice. Theoretical education at university is good and important, but without a feeling for practice, for negotiating, drafting complicated contracts and developing cross-territorial strategies, there is little chance of a fulfilling career.
Josefine Antonia Schulte: What do you think needs to be done to bring lawyers from all over the world together?
Lawyer Ralph M Ertner: Those who want to are already together. Those who sit at home and think that someone will soon come knocking, must be forced to go abroad. The foreign station in the Referendariat is too little.
Attorney Ralph M. Ertner thank you very much for the meaningful answers and that he took the time for this interview. I found his comment that everyone has to motivate themselves and cannot wait for someone else to do it particularly exciting. I have often observed this behavior in my fellow students but also in myself and is probably based on the principle that motivation has to do with one’s own energy. So the world is open to all young people, we just have to recognize the opportunity and start. The cultural aspects and the insight into Mr. Ertner’s everyday work and life in South Africa are also impressive. The tip about practical experience is something that everyone or every lawyer from different countries and cultures has recommended to me, and we as future lawyers should probably follow it!
About ABOWI: Across Borders With Information – ABOWI, an interview series by Josefine Schulte Law student from Berlin in Germany. Questions and Answers: A journey around the world revealing differences and prejudices. What moves the lawyers of this earth, Josefine Schulte asks herself from Azerbaijan to Cyprus.