UPDATE: 12/10/13, 1:24 p.m. EST. In several little-known facts about Mandela, the BBC reports that he only officially received his law degree in 1989.

Nelson Mandela’s death Thursday prompted an outpouring of tributes around the world. But before he became one of the 20th century’s most influential world leaders, Mandela founded South Africa’s first black law firm, a bold step on what would be a long path to social justice.

In his 1994 autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom,” Mandela wrote that upon completing his legal studies in 1951, he was “outraged to discover” that many of the country’s “most blue-chip law firms charged Africans even higher fees for criminal and civil cases than they did their far wealthier white clients.”

The discovery led Mandela to open his own law office in Johannesburg. During lunch breaks he would frequently meet his friend and fellow lawyer Oliver Tambo. When visiting Tambo at his firm Kovalsky and Tuch, Mandela wrote that he “made a point of sitting in a Whites Only chair in the Whites Only waiting room.”

In 1953, Mandela recalled, the pair launched their own shop, Mandela and Tambo, which quickly became the “firm of first choice and last resort” for black clients seeking legal help navigating South Africa’s strict system of racial segregation called apartheid.

“I realized quickly what Mandela and Tambo meant to ordinary Africans,” Mandela wrote. “It was a place where they could come and find a sympathetic ear and a competent ally, a place where they would not be either turned away or cheated, a place where they might actually feel proud to be represented by men of their own skin color. This was the reason I had become a lawyer in the first place, and my work often made me feel I had made the right decision.”

Ultimately, Mandela and Tambo’s antiapartheid activism provoked South Africa’s ruling authorities to harass the firm out of existence. More than 50 years after its offices were destroyed by fire in 1960, Mandela and Tambo would be reborn as a museum in 2011. Tambo spent years in exile before he died in 1993, while Mandela was one of several defendants convicted in the infamous Rivonia trial, for which he served 27 years in prison before being released in 1990.

Mandela’s journey from prisoner to president had many of South Africa’s largest firms—as well as some prominent attorneys from the country—pausing to reflect on his legacy upon his death at age 95.

Marco Masotti, a native South African and corporate partner and cochair of the private funds practice at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison in New York, tells The Am Law Daily that the circumstances surrounding Mandela’s first visit to Manhattan in 1993 helped persuade him to join the firm.

Mandela’s host on that occasion was Theodore Sorensen, a former speechwriter for President John F. Kennedy who at the time was a senior Paul Weiss partner. The firm had provided pro bono counsel to the South Africa Free Elections Fund, which was raising money from corporate donors for voter education to help the country carry out its first free democratic elections in 1994. (Sorensen died in 2010.)

Masotti joined Paul Weiss in 1993 and worked through the firm and the New York City Bar Association to receive the credentials needed to serve as an election observer the following year. Masotti, who is biracial, grew up in a small town south of the South African coastal city of Durban, near where Mandela cast his own vote in the landmark election.

In the late 1990s Masotti briefly left Paul Weiss for a clerkship on South Africa’s constitutional court, a body created in part to sidestep the country’s more conservative court of appeals, which was thought to be more averse to adopting changes that would rid whites of the exalted status they enjoyed under apartheid. Masotti clerked for famous South African judge Albert “Albie” Sachs, a key figure in the antiapartheid movement who was nearly killed by a car bomb while exiled in Mozambique in 1988. The bomb caused him to lose an arm and the ability to see out of one eye.

Masotti says Mandela’s death has given him a chance to consider the significance of growing up in South Africa during that time, as well as the the late leader’s legacy.

“I’ve heard from so many different people today who just wanted to talk about him,” says Masotti, who met Mandela several times and has a picture in his office of the man also affectionately known by his ancestral clan name Madiba. “As a lawyer, he helped change the jurisprudence on race and socioeconomic standing.”

Upon becoming president, Mandela created South Africa’s widely acclaimed Truth and Reconciliation Commission in order to avoid casting blame and punishing those who propped up apartheid in favor of understanding what happened in the past and providing a path forward for the nation, says Masotti, whose wife worked for the TRC. (The commission’s work included hearings covering apartheid’s role in the legal and business fields.)

Other lawyers with ties to South Africa, who like Masotti now work in the U.S., have their own thoughts on how Mandela’s leadership affected their lives and careers.

“For all South Africans, in particular lawyers, he had a lasting and significant impression on their lives,” says Bradley Silver, a former Kirkland & Ellis associate who now works as an assistant general counsel with Time Warner in New York. “Despite being so far away, [Mandela’s passing] still feels very close and personal. It’s extremely sad.”

Silver grew up in South Africa and attended law school there in the mid-1990s, a period that saw the country begin the arduous process of leaving apartheid behind under a new interim constitution. And though Mandela was elected South Africa’s first black president in 1994, the transformation of a nation long divided by a complex system of racial laws would be years in the making, and necessitate the herculean efforts of a new generation of lawyers.

Jonathan Mayers, a former Davis Polk & Wardwell associate who now serves as senior counsel with New York–based hedge fund Renaissance Technologies, says Mandela’s stalwart stewardship of South Africa was “one of the primary factors” in his decision to enter the legal field.

“As a white person in South Africa, one of the most effective and efficient things to do in fighting apartheid was become a lawyer to try and change the system,” says Mayers, who earned his law degree from the University of Cape Town in 1996. “In law school I had professors who in between classes were shuttling out to help write new legislation. It was an extraordinary time.”

One of Mayers’ professors was Arthur Chaskalson, who was part of the legal team that represented Mandela and other defendants during the Rivonia trial and helped spare them a death sentence.

Chaskalson, who died a year ago this week, was appointed to South Africa’s constitutional court and served as its chief justice from 2001 to 2005. The country’s entire system of governance needed to be changed. After graduating from law school, Mayers began working at Mallinicks, a firm in Cape Town that was among the few with black partners before the official end of apartheid. (Mallinicks merged with leading local firm Webber Wentzel in 2008.)

Mayers says Mallinicks represented many individuals imprisoned on Robben Island—where Mandela himself was incarcerated for nearly three decades—some of whom would go on to hold important positions in South Africa’s postapartheid governments. But many of the country’s other large firms faced tough questions about their ties to the apartheid establishment. For that reason, Mayers says, South Africa’s young lawyers often took the lead on assignments that older partners might have had difficulty in handling.

“We had a crash course in rewriting the system,” Mayers says. He recalls scrambling with fellow law school graduates to tear down the infrastructure undergirding apartheid rule—an effort that involved everything from reworking local garbage collection ordinances to guiding corporate clients through the country’s new regulatory apparatus.

In the two decades since, South Africa’s transition to a full-fledged democracy under Mandela has helped it become a burgeoning economic power, even if free market reforms have also spurred an increase in social inequality. The country’s importance as a gateway to the rest of the African continent has also benefited the same large firms that once struggled to straddle the divide between an untenable past and an uncertain future.

The Am Law Daily reported last month on Hogan Lovells becoming the latest Am Law 100 firm to enter the South African market by merging with 120-lawyer local firm Routledge Modise. Last year, around the time The American Lawyer took an in-depth look at South Africa’s changing legal landscape, Canada’s Fasken Martineau DuMoulin picked up top Johannesburg firm Bell Dewar.

To understand the full weight of Mandela’s impact on the country’s legal profession, one need only visit visit the website of any large South African firm.

Webber Wentzel, which earlier this year forged an alliance with Magic Circle firm Linklaters, prominently featured a statement honoring Madiba on its homepage Friday. Other leading local firms like DLA Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr and Werksmans released statements of their own, and scrolling through the sites of such firms turns up the names of dozens of lawyers who attended a university or received a legal scholarship named for Mandela.

Robert Otty, a managing director of Norton Rose Fulbright in Johannesburg, echoed the views of many in the profession with a statement offered on behalf of the firm. “We are deeply saddened to have lost the father of our nation, a guide and an icon,” he said.

Norton Rose, which is structured as a Swiss verein, established a substantial presence in South Africa in late 2010 though its tie-up with top local firm Deneys Reitz. (Norton Rose went on to combine with Canada’s Macleod Dixon in 2011 and absorb Am Law 100 firm Fulbright & Jaworski this summer.) Norton Rose’s respect for Mandela’s legacy extends beyond words.

The London-based firm has been representing a group of friends and directors—including longtime Mandela confidant and human rights lawyer George Bizos—in a high-profile court battle with two of the late leader’s daughters who sought control of companies that manage the proceeds of their father’s estate. (The daughters withdrew the litigation in October.)

Of course, for those inspired by the man and his message, a mere court case cannot mar Mandela’s status as a global icon.

“Nelson Mandela, not to sound trite, was the moral conscience of the nation,” Mayers says. Adds Silver: “I feel I’m personally indebted to Mandela for what he did for South Africa.”

In a letter to his family written from prison and read before a rally in Soweto in 1985, Mandela sought to explain why his life was driven by the pursuit of freedom.

“In the name of the law, I found myself treated as a criminal …not because of what I had done, but because of what I stood for, because of my conscience,” he wrote. “No one in his right senses would choose such a life, but there comes a time when a man is denied the right to live a normal life, when he can only live the life of an outlaw because the government has so decreed to use the law.”