By JOHAN BOTES, Published in STUDENT FEATURE - So you want to be a lawyer?

Do you unwillingly cringe, smile sympathetically, guiltily experience schadenfreude or genuinely commiserate whenever you see a new group of candidate attorneys reporting for duty? We have all been in their positions and appreciate the steep learning curve ahead of them. Fresh out of university or previous work experience, candidate attorneys are often surprised when experiencing the rigours of working life in a law firm for the first time. We demand cerebral application of legal theory, an ability to grasp complex issues the first time and pragmatism. We expect people to work the hours that we have become accustomed to, notwithstanding the fact that during the preceding four years, they may not have risen from bed for any class before 10h00. What can possibly go wrong?


Candidate attorneys face the daunting prospect of making the transition from student to working professional. Added to the pressure of learning new skills, playing nicely with others and adding value to their new employer's business, is the realisation that they will have to settle on an area of specialisation sooner rather than later.

Many quickly learn that the sexy subjects at university are decidedly boring or not commercially viable in practice, as many young attorneys wanting to specialise in human rights law can testify. Luckily the reverse is often true as well:

employment law is frequently a subject that everyone hates while studying but find is actually much more interesting and challenging in practice than in textbooks. This bodes well for trainees unsure of their possible areas of specialisation. One of the beauties of the house of law is that is has many rooms. It caters for all types of travellers and would-be residents, whatever excites you: whether it is the clattering of keyboards of the paralegals in the conveyancing team, the hustle and bustle of a litigation practice, the rocket science thinking in tax or the business-meets-regulatory-crossed-with-litigation work of competition law. But many bright candidate attorneys have to face the prospect of selecting their future niche area without the certainty of knowing exactly whether that is what they want to do.

They may elect to remain in a specific area for all sorts of reasons, from getting along well with the rest of the team, being exposed to an interesting project to enjoying the interaction with the clients in that practice area. But colleagues come and go, projects come to an end and even clients are known to move from one firm to another. What are the right factors for candidate attorneys to consider when determining their area of specialisation? The answer may lie in turning our gaze east. No, much further than Edenvale - to the Land of the Rising Sun.

The Japanese concept of ikigai refers to, roughly translated, the concept of "a reason to live". It refers to the idea of life having a purpose. Our goal is to find our own. This may sound highfalutin but research suggests that newer generation employees seek and value more meaning in their jobs and careers than was previously the norm. If you can find that which gives you a reason to live or come to work in the morning, ikigai suggests that you will find greater meaning in what you do and lead a better live. Experts believe that part of the reason for the longevity of the inhabitants of Okinawa island, south west of Japan, is the manner in which Kigali permeates their lives.

But how does one achieve ikigai? The answer lies in balancing profession, vocation, mission and passion. Research singles out these four questions to answer in arriving at your own ikigai:

  • What do you love?
  • In what do you excel?
  • What does the world need from you?
  • For what can you get paid?

Using adaptations of these four broad life goal questions can assist candidate attorneys to make the important life choice of determining their future area of law:

  • What area or aspect of law do you love?
  • In which areas of law or practise of law do you excel?
  • What does your firm/the broader legal community/society need from you?
  • Considering your answers to the first three questions, what is it that you can do that will allow you to pay the bills and prosper?

Focussing on one area while neglecting another may result in short-term gains, but unhappiness in your career and even life. We all know friends or colleagues who hate what they do but feel trapped or captured because they earn a good living. Likewise, there are many struggling practitioners who enjoy their work but are constantly stressed because they cannot make ends meet. The combination of answers to all these questions will differ from person to person.

Doing proper introspection on these focus areas will allow candidate attorneys to make career decisions that are informed by long-term motivational goals and ideals. This may not only improve their prospects of a long, happy career in practice, but could result in true ikigai: having a purpose in life.

Botes is a Partner and Head of the Employment and Compensation Practice, Baker McKenzie (South Africa).