Another six basic universal principles applicable to the conduct of a candidate legal practitioner

May 1st, 2019

In a previous article ‘Five basic universal principles applicable in the conduct of a candidate attorney’ 2018 (Nov) DR 20, we looked at the first five universally applicable conduct principles. Those principles, and the principles dealt with in this article, apply regardless of culture and where one works.

In this article we will look at the remaining six universally applicable conduct principles.

Principle 6: Be very careful about what you do on social media

The lines between your professional life and your private life have, as far as social media is concerned, basically disappeared.

You should be aware of what you post or say on social media. Being a candidate legal practitioner means that you are working towards becoming a member of the legal profession. This means at least two things:

  • Firstly, your firm’s clients want to know that their legal affairs are in safe and reliable hands. Always ask yourself whether your social media actions send a different message to your firm’s clients. It may seem great fun to post pictures of your group of friends at a drunken party on Facebook. Doing that will, however, not give your firm’s clients any comfort that their legal affairs are being handled by the right firm.
  • Secondly, what you do on social media is ultimately a reflection on your firm. People will normally connect the dots between your social media posts and your firm. It will not reflect positively on you or your firm if your social media posts are offensive or in poor taste.

The best approach is to stay away from any social media posts that are, or could be, offensive. As a rule of thumb, you should stay well clear of any crude, political, racist, religiously divisive, insulting or sexual posts.

Also, be careful which posts you ‘like’ or ‘share’. The same rules apply there.

It is a good idea to go through all your previous social media posts and delete all posts, likes and shares that are no longer appropriate in your new position as an employee of a firm of legal practitioners.

Principle 7: Maintain absolute legal practitioner/client confidentiality

The identities of all of your firm’s clients are confidential.

All details of your firm’s client’s matters are confidential.

Each and every employee of a law firm (including candidate legal practitioners) is automatically under an obligation to maintain absolute confidentiality in respect of the firm’s clients and their matters. There are two main exceptions to this obligation, namely:

  • Firstly, you can disclose a client’s identity and details of the client’s matter if the client has consented thereto. Law firms are often asked by potential new clients for a list of some of the bigger clients that the firm has acted for. The firm can only disclose those clients’ identities to the potential new client if those clients have consented to it.
  • Secondly, strictly speaking, you do not have to maintain that confidentiality to the extent that the information is already lawfully available publicly. For example, if your client is a party to litigation proceedings, the documents and information that is publicly available in the court file are no longer confidential. However, clients do not enjoy having their matters discussed in public, even if the details of the matter are lawfully publicly available. The best approach is not to discuss, disclose or comment on a client’s matter unless the client has given you its express consent to do so.

It seems like such an obvious and easy obligation for you to comply with. Where is the problem, you may ask? The problem can, for example, arise because you and your friends from other law firms meet up from time to time and want to exchange notes about your experiences. You are eager to compare notes and to share your experiences. In your eagerness (but before you realise what you have done) you have told a friend from outside your firm that you do a lot of commercial agreements for client A, B or C. That is a breach of the legal practitioner/client confidentiality obligation that applies to you as an employee of your firm. Place a guard over your mouth. Always.

Another area where it becomes tempting to breach this obligation is if you are working on a high profile matter. You may want to impress your friends by telling them the inside scoop of ‘what really happened’ or ‘what is really going on’. Do not. It is never worth it.

Principle 8: Be on time

We all know that first impressions count. The worst first impression you can make (apart from tripping over your feet) is to be late for a meeting, for work or for court proceedings.

Being late is incredibly rude – by being late for a meeting you are basically insulting the other participants. Your conduct tells them that their time is not as valuable as yours and that they must just waste their time until you eventually grace them with your presence.

Do not be late. You start with a massive disadvantage if you arrive late.

However, if for some really justifiable reason (such as a two-hour delay on the highway because of load shedding), you find that you are going to be late, let the host of the meeting know that you will be late and why. When you do arrive, apologise for being late.

Principle 9: Avoid toxic people

Each day has only 24 hours. A normal working day has (theoretically anyway) only seven and a half hours. Use your time wisely and productively.

One of the biggest thieves of your working hours is ‘toxic people’. Toxic people are people who are almost always negative, who are always complaining and who very rarely manage (or even try) to do anything constructive.

Toxic people literally steal your time and sap your energy.

Judging from some 25 years’ experience and discussions with business people, phrases that a toxic person may typically use include ‘I am so tired’ (said every single day without any underlying medical reason), ‘the partners in this firm [followed by some or other negative comment]’ and ‘I cannot believe that they [followed by some negative remark]’.

Toxic people will happily eat up your time and your energy. And never give anything back in return.

If you do not give toxic people the opportunity to unpack their never-ending tales of woe on you, they will just move on and find the next victim who has to endure their lamentations.

Avoid toxic people like the plague, and obviously, do not be a toxic person yourself.

Principle 10: Have goals, not dreams

It is perfectly normal to speak about your dreams and aspirations when you officially start your legal career.

You have to be rather precise in what is meant by your dreams though.

If your dreams are really just wishes, then they are of no use to you.

If I say that my dream is to become ‘a partner at this firm’ or ‘the senior partner of this firm’ or ‘a sole practitioner with my own firm’ or ‘a solicitor practising in the City of London’, then I am just expressing a wish.

I could just as well have said that I wish one day to be ‘a partner at this firm’ or ‘the senior partner of this firm’ or ‘a sole practitioner with my own firm’ or ‘a solicitor practising in the city of London’.

Dreams, or wishes, just tell us the result that we want to achieve. They do not give us any guidance on how we are going to get there.

Goals, on the other hand, do give us that critical guidance. Your goals must be stated in writing. Your goals should also be ‘SMART’. That is, your (written down) goals should be:

  • Specific: Write down your short term and medium-term goals. Make sure that your goals are specific. For example, ‘by the end of my first year of articles I want to be able to draft pleadings properly’.
  • Measurable: Make sure that your goals are measurable. How are you going to measure your pleadings drafting goal? You could say that you have achieved that goal if that brilliant 30-year experienced litigation partner in your firm only makes very minor changes to the pleadings that you have drafted.
  • Achievable: Make sure that your goals are realistic and are, therefore, achievable. Do not be too lenient on the time lines for achieving your goals but be realistic too. For example, you are probably not going to be a very competent corporate law practitioner after one year of exposure to that field – the field is just too complex and varied. Some things take time. But you can set a one-year goal whereby you want to know and be able to apply those sections of the Companies Act 71 of 2008 that typically come up in corporate transactions.
  • Required: This is a critical element of your goal setting. What is required for you to achieve your goals? This element should record what you have to do in order to achieve your goal. For example, if we take the Companies Act goal set out above, you could say: ‘I need to read those sections until I know their substance by heart. Then I need to read the commentary on them until I know all their nuances. Then I must practise applying them in each corporate transaction that I am involved in. Obviously, I must make sure that I am involved in enough corporate transactions’.
  • Time based: You should have a definite time line for achieving each of your goals. That time line should be realistic but not too lenient. Do not wait until the time line expires before you measure how you are faring in achieving your goals – measure that every now and then and adjust your time lines if necessary. Do not be too hard on yourself, but do not be too lenient either.

Find 30 minutes. Go sit at a peaceful place (or any other place that energises you). Write down your goals. Make sure that they are SMART. Then revisit your goals often. Measure how you are doing. Adjust the time lines if needed. And, very importantly, give yourself a massive pat on the back every time you have achieved one of your goals. Be sure to celebrate each and every one of your successes.

Principle 11: Remember your past, live in the present and work towards the future

Being a candidate legal practitioner is a unique period in any legal practitioner’s life. It is at times bewildering, frustrating and demotivating. It is also exciting, rewarding and a great learning curve.

Do not wish your life away. Do not wish your articles over. Rather, enjoy the experience. Just as with anything else in life, the more effort you put into your articles, the more rewarding the experience will be.

Keep one eye firmly fixed on your future. Be clear about where you want to get to, and how you are going to do that. Your goals (written down and SMART) will assist you greatly with that.

However, never forget your past. Always remember where you come from. Every now and then, take the time to measure how far you have come already. And pat yourself on the back for it. Then look forward to the future and be clear about how far you still want to progress. Your goals will tell you how you are going to get there.

Francois Terblanche BCom Law (cum laude) LLB (cum laude) (UJ) is a legal practitioner at Knowles Husain Lindsay Inc in Johannesburg.

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2019 (May) DR 8.