From LLB to admission – are there any guarantees?

October 1st, 2017

By Kyle Stephen Abrahams

Studying towards becoming an attorney can be an exciting and rewarding career. Students are told that once they obtain their law degrees that a bright and successful future lies ahead of them. What no one tells them before they register for a degree in law is the substantial amount of hard work, perseverance and dedication at university that is required right from the very beginning, just to secure articles of clerkship. Finding articles is a challenge, but have you ever considered what would happen in the event that you were not retained post-admission?

Securing articles in South Africa (SA) is an absolute nightmare and is regarded as one of the most challenging objectives that graduates are faced with today. Unless a student has had the opportunity of attending the many vacation programmes on offer from the ‘big five’ from an early stage in your academic career, their chances of securing articles of clerkship with the ‘big five’ are somewhat diminished. Once a candidate attorney (CA) has secured his or her articles of clerkship, the opportunity to learn and experience one of SA’s most sought-after professions begins. Candidate attorneys either undergo a two-year contract of articles or one-year of articles (after successfully having completed the full time programme at the School for Legal Practice). For those students who are still completing their LLB studies, they either enter into the five-year contract of articles or three year contract of articles (if you have obtained a three-year undergraduate degree).

Experiences during articles range from satisfactory to unsatisfactory depending on the size, environment and exposure a CA is given at a law firm. Many of the prominent law firms allow their CAs to gather a vast range of experiences within different departments by way of a rotation process. At smaller firms, this is not the case. In many cases, a CA would either be employed at a general legal practice or a conveyancing legal practice. In a general legal practice, on any given day, a CA simply has to deal with whatever work is thrown his or her way. In this way, the CA is given the opportunity to understand what it entails to run a legal practice from the very first point. The last thing a CA wants is to be stuck in the same department for his or her entire period of articles. This is why it is important to ensure that CAs encourage their principal to expose them to other facets of the law if and when he or she feels the CA is competent to do so. Remember, it is important to know that the CA is a clerk who knows the bare-minimum of what practice entails, it is best that the CA is prepared for what is to come and able to learn very quickly.

If the CA has managed to see through their period of articles, passed their admissions exams, received their certificate of proficiency and can just about see the light at the end of the tunnel, the question is: What now? The biggest fear for a CA is when he or she has completed his or her period of articles and is not afforded the opportunity to be taken on as a Professional Assistant at the end of his or her term. Many CAs have different motives for wanting to undergo articles and to become an admitted attorney, but, has it ever occurred to those who want to practise law that there are no guarantees once you have successfully qualified as an admitted attorney? In most instances, juniors are given a month to find alternative placement. This does not always work out as planned. What are the options available to them, and what have they done to secure their shot at a ‘title’?

It is a daunting reality, which many CAs are faced with every year and leads to many despondent young professionals who end up working in alternate professions and at the very worst, unemployed. For CAs out there who have secured their articles of clerkship, here are some helpful tips to assist you in securing your shot at landing a job as a Professional Assistant at your respective firms.

  • If you are in it for the money, stop right there and forget about being the next Harvey Spector, from the television series, Suits. It is all about building a career and being exposed to the law at this very fundamental stage of your career.
  • Be prepared to sacrifice your personal time for the sake of your growth within the legal fraternity. Spending late nights back at the office is a given and in some instances gives you the best space to work in. It is a test of character and a chance to learn as much as possible.
  • On a lighter note, say goodbye to fancy stiletto heels and fancy outfits as you will find yourself serving court process at firms scattered around the city for example, the Master’s Office, Deeds Office, magistrate’s court, etcetera.
  • Be innovative and make suggestions as to what you think is lacking and what could benefit the firm (typically in a small law firm environment). Remember, your principal appreciates your insight and compassion towards your future and his or her business. Be adaptable to changing circumstances.
  • Time management cannot be over-emphasised. Often CAs are stuck trying to obtain missing court files and pleading with administrative staff. Not all work is billable, which results in a longer working day. Effective time management is one of the most crucial skills to have and will benefit you as you continue to pursue your legal career. Your clients are important to you and billable hours do matter, but avoid burning yourself out. A balanced lifestyle is important.
  • Try not to show any form of negativity because it feeds on you and eventually those around you. A positive attitude and having effective solutions at your disposal will take you a long way. Self-doubt is a dangerous thing.
  • The work load can be excessive, but be open to wanting to do more for your principal. This may influence his or her long-term plan for you at the firm as he or she would be given an idea of how and where you could fit in the firm at post-admission.
  • Never lose your selling acumen completely. After all, what you bill determines your income and future at the firm. Try and expose yourself to other industries by joining associations, which will give you perspective and allow you to market your personal brand.
  • Try ensuring that there is balance between quality and quantity. It is all good and well if you are billing more than your monthly target but if the quality of your work is poor then that means more work for yourself when you have to redo your work. Understand the comparison between hard work and simply getting work done effectively.
  • Think smart and not hard. Yes, you know your Court Rules; but how can you use them to benefit your client to best serve his or her position?
  • The diary system works well and is often compensated with negotiation when you feel you are running out of time.
  • Be prepared to be more office bound as opposed to ‘having fun’ at court.
  • Lastly, once you are sworn in and admitted as an attorney, then the hard work begins. Be prepared to consider that you are now independent and will be given your own clients and files to attend to with less supervision from your previous principal or prospective director, as they have their own files and deadlines to deal with. You are still quite fresh and will be able to reach out to your colleagues for assistance as they have all been where you are.

The above suggestions are by no means the only factors to consider, which will get a CA appointed as a Professional Assistant. Many other factors exist depending on the current needs of the firm and the ‘goods’ the CA produces or talent shown during their time at the firm. Do not lose hope if you are seeking articles, as the value of being an attorney is still highly regarded in most places. Never lose track of the vision and purpose as a newly qualified professional and remember to keep striving with the desire to know and learn more about this incredible profession.

Kyle Stephen Abrahams LLB (Unisa) is an analyst at Delloite and a compliance officer at the Cape Town Candidate Attorneys Association in Cape Town.

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2017 (Oct) DR 43.