SO YOU WANT TO BE A LAWYER? October 2017

By TSHEPO SHABANGU, Published in STUDENT FEATURE - So you want to be a lawyer?

You have selected a noble profession, and you have taken the first step in that direction – getting a university legal qualification.

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Now I want you to consider my next words really carefully, I am going to tell you something that I wish you to take seriously during your studies, to lay the groundwork for your career – pay close attention to everything that you are learning as you may need to use some of that knowledge in your legal practice – DO NOT CRAM! In addition to your legal knowledge, you must be able to pay attention to detail and use sound judgement. You further need strong drafting, research, analytical and problem solving skills as a lawyer and you can start honing these skills at university. Being tech savvy is also a big plus in the digital times we are living in – lawyers too need to be technologically proficient. Aim to achieve excellent academic results as this will give you a strong footing when looking for articles of clerkship.

Articles can be completed in a private law firm, office of the state attorney or legal aid institution approved by the Law Society. Examples are Justice Centres of Legal Aid South Africa, University Legal Aid Clinics and Legal Resources Centre etc.

How do you secure articles?

The economy is such that many law firms are unable to employ candidate attorneys, while others have decreased their intake. So, how do you increase your chances of obtaining articles?

Do not wait until the last year of your studies to start looking for articles. Some law firms start recruiting from the end of the second year or in the third year of your LLB studies.

Here are some suggestions that you can follow to increase your chances of securing articles in a law firm:

  • As already indicated, apply early in your studies as this will increase your chances of securing articles and will alleviate the stress of doing so in your final year.
  • Take advantage of the career development centres at your campus as these can offer you practical guidelines to follow in securing articles;
  • Some firms take part in career days at universities – make sure that you are there and talk to the various representatives of the firms about their requirements. Talk to the candidate attorneys and young attorneys at those firms, as they are a good source of information and can provide the required guidance;
  • Use your networks – firms receive many CVs and cannot give articles to all the applicants. Any friends or relatives who may be lawyers or know lawyers can potentially connect you to possible employers;
  • Ask your law professors and lecturers for assistance in this next phase of your legal career. They have networks and can connect you to potential employers. Some of the visiting professors and guest lecturers are partners at law firms and may assist you - make sure that you talk to them about your aspirations. If you are on the dean's list of top achievers, this can simplify the search as some firms recruit from those lists;
  • Follow up on adverts for articles sent to your faculty. Participate in placement programmes organised from time to time by the Law Society. Check the notice boards of courts, as some law firms advertise vacancies for candidate attorneys there;
  • It is never too early to be involved in activities of various legal bodies of practising attorneys - some of these bodies, such as the Black Lawyers Association (BLA), have student chapters, and this is a good way to interact with practising attorneys, and for them to get to know you;
  • Take part in vacation programmes offered by law firms during the July or December holidays. These will give you insight into how law firms work, and you may get to meet some of the partners of the firms and start a mentoring relationship with them. (I was first hired by a law firm that invited me to take part in their vacation programme through the Integrated Bar Project, which unfortunately has been discontinued.)
  • Visit your local law societies as they have resources which may assist you in your hunt for articles.

What to do if you have not secured articles Despite all your best efforts to apply some of the suggestions mentioned or trying other means to secure articles in a law firm, you have not been successful. Do not despair as there is light at the end of the tunnel. You can do the following:

  • Enrol for the six month Practical Legal Training School (PLT) full time, which will reduce your articles to 12 months and simultaneously continue your search for articles;
  • Apply to organisations like the Legal Resources Centre and Justice Centres of Legal Aid South Africa where you can also serve your articles;
  • Certain universities have legal clinics where you can serve your articles - enrol with them;
  • Do an internship at a law firm, paid or unpaid, which can improve your chances of obtaining articles if you prove your potential;
  • Become a paralegal at a law firm with a view to ultimately serving articles with that firm. Many lawyers started out as paralegals or secretaries and were granted articles of clerkship once they demonstrated their value;
  • Safety and Security Sector Education and Training Authority (SASSETA) has provided millions of Rands for the placement of unemployed law graduates. Contact SASSETA and ascertain the requirements for enrolment.

What are you likely to face as a graduate?

Graduating is very exciting and I remember the exhilarating feeling I had when I obtained my degree, only to realise that I knew very little, if anything, when I started serving my articles.

Therefore, once you start serving your articles, the bubble is likely to burst as you realise how little you know. My advice – lose the "know-it-all" attitude and realise that the learning is just about to start. Use the opportunity to get involved in as many cases as possible to obtain the requisite technical lawyering skills. Do what is required of you timeously, no matter how menial – do not become self-important!

Do not be scared to ask questions of your principals. They have spent years perfecting their expertise and have a lot of experience and knowledge which they can impart.

Most importantly, as no-one is perfect, mistakes are bound to happen. If you make a mistake, do not cover it up – "rat on yourself" to your principal! Then start working with him or her on a solution to fix the mistake. Most law schools focus on legal education and law firms on technical legal skills but less emphasis is placed on marketing and business development skills. True, technical skills are the sine qua non of every lawyer but what good would that serve if you are a capable lawyer without any clients to service? Similarly, what good would a rainmaker be if he or she did not have the technical skills to back them up? So there is a need for balance, and for young attorneys to start acquiring technical legal and marketing skills early on in the profession.

Acquiring clients and new business is the lifeblood of law firms; young attorneys should be able to sell their services and acquire new clients. Your friends and acquaintances from school and university are your potential clients and you must nurture those relationships.

It is important to satisfy your clients, and the golden rule – do unto others as you want them to do unto you – is applicable. Therefore, provide the type of service to your clients that you would expect from your own lawyer. In addition to knowing the law applicable to your clients' issues, understand their businesses as this will demonstrate that you care about them and their needs. Maintain a client-centric approach and adopt FNB's payoff line: How can we help you?

Take responsibility for your career development. Find a mentor and a sponsor early on in your career. A mentor is someone who has experience and can act as your adviser or sounding board, whereas a sponsor is someone who has power to ensure the advancement and progression of your career. BUT REMEMBER – people can only advocate for those that they know, so be visible and build relationships in your firm. Do not be an island!

What sort of future is there for lawyers?

Lawyers provide important services and there will always be a need for us. However, the legal field is ever evolving and the lawyers who will do well are those who, not only have an excellent grasp of the law they practise and its application but are also willing to reinvent themselves and use technology to support the delivery of their legal services.

There are so many areas of law to specialise in, and new areas of law are opening up for young lawyers to cut their teeth on and expand their practices.

For example, since the Companies Act 2008 came into effect, a lawyer can become a business rescue practitioner, and with the pervasive use of technology, an opportunity has opened up for lawyers to specialise in cyber law.

The legal market has changed tremendously in the past few years. The competition that we face does not only emanate from other lawyers and some big accounting firms, but also from many new entrants like legal process outsourcing (LPO) providers and even Artificial Intelligence (AI). We should not look at those developments with trepidation, we must see them as opportunities to reinvent ourselves, refine our service offerings and develop key skills that will be in demand by savvy purchasers of legal services.

You have chosen well by studying to be a lawyer and the best is yet to come. Now, buckle up, tighten your seatbelt and enjoy the ride!

Shabangu is a Partner at Spoor & Fisher.

This article is dedicated to the memory of the CEO of the Law Society, Nic Swart, for his devotion to the training and development of young lawyers and his passion for the legal profession.

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