Candidate attorneys finding the first rung on the corporate ladder

October 24th, 2016

By Matthew Schoonraad

The prerequisites to becoming a proficient director at an upmarket corporate law firm usually includes years of experience as an associate, time spent in court or at mastering one’s discipline and a multitude of lonely hours spent solving legal problems. It is so often believed that the zenith of one’s career is the direct product of how we developed during the tough, middle years of our lives. Not enough recognition and consideration is given to the early years that in essence formed and fuelled our desire to learn, to work and to prosper. Only with an impenetrable foundation will any individual be able to achieve that which otherwise would be impossible. Notwithstanding this, many legal professionals neglect the importance of their formative years. Those years referred to does not include our time as an associate, or as a professional assistant. Instead, the years that need the most attention but get the least credit are those spent as a candidate attorney (CA).

As a CA, your time is generally a blur of thoroughly researched legal opinions, time-consuming civil and criminal drafting, magistrate court appearances and office administration, all of which is expected to be done at the standard of your principal. The days are long but the months go quick and by the time one gets admitted, there is no time to reflect on one of the most overwhelming experiences in practice.

As a member of the Cape Town Candidate Attorneys Association (CTCAA), I am of the opinion that too many young professionals sprint through their articles looking toward the summit of the corporate ladder before taking the first step with comprehensive certainty. Candidate attorney’s play a vitally important role in law firms and in their productivity. On the other hand, the knowledge gained during one’s time as a CA is fundamental to your personal growth and commercial worth. Learning to have an eye for detail and a prudent approach to risk will make you a better practitioner, but picking up on legal know-how and practical tact often comes from being observant during your time as a CA.

Due to the legal profession being one largely based on the old corporate model of a commercial hierarchy, CA’s struggle to find their place in the corporate setting and approach directors or senior professionals who carry both their legal careers and their egos. Thus, CA’s are often left with a tainted first impression of being within the legal field. CA’s are left feeling alone and inept instead of motivated and challenged. The CTCAA believes that the experience that one gets from being a CA is quintessential to the way you practice and inevitably the type of legal practitioner you will become. Being at the bottom of the corporate hierarchy should be a motivation to CA’s. Those who find themselves in positions above and around CA’s have a responsibility to nurture the skills of CA’s and allow them to prosper in an open, approachable environment. Presently there are still too many law firms which look to use and abuse the CA programme to allow for large cutbacks on employee salaries and do not meet their responsibility as a principal. The article clerks can be left to their own devices, sometimes to their own detriment.

The road to the corporate summit is littered with professionals who, somewhere along the way, forgot their foundation and allowed themselves to become consumed by a profession begging for individuals to break the mould. As prevalent as legal reform and amendments, CA’s should seek to reform legal commercial stereotypes and eradicate the ‘hamster-on-a-wheel’ business regime. Instead CA’s should realise that their growth and personal climb towards affluence and opulence starts with being humble, determined and strong-willed. Through nurturing these basic but fundamental traits, coupled with an understanding of the South African legal framework, individuals will be better equipped to handle the rigors of practice. Even though confidence and being self-assured are good traits to have, possessing an irrationally large ego can often lead to over-confident practitioners who end up zealously representing their own interests and not the interests of their clients.

With a growing rate of unemployed legal graduates, the importance of CA’s being commercially equipped will not only allow for personal growth but will allow legal entrepreneurship to flourish. CA’s who come from a background of being well trained, exposed to numerous legal situations and allowed to take on responsibility within the ambit of their experience will have the ability to break away from the normal corporate business mould. The legal fraternity will have to look to the next wave of attorneys, many of them CA’s at the date hereof, to usher in the use of technology and new-world corporate structures. Ideas and models which used to fall outside the scope of a law firm, such as social media, will need to find both a place and a voice. As time and commercial productivity changes in light of technical advances, so too must our beloved profession learn to adapt. It must learn to move away from the rigid hierarchy and synthesise a suitable model for allowing attorneys to market their product: Skilled legal time.

All in all this task seems far beyond the reach of a wide-eyed and bushy-tailed CA but to an extent that is where the mental shift needs to originate. The importance of young professionals should not be overlooked and a conscious recognition of the aforementioned importance must be imprinted onto every individual who is fortunate enough to be afforded an opportunity to be an article clerk. The first step to bringing about this consciousness will need to be refined like a good wine: With a lot of pressure, and even more time.

The pathway to greatness used to come to those who kept their heads down, worked really hard and followed the footsteps of directors or other influential learned colleagues. CA’s now, however, find themselves at the stage when law firms are being transformed and redefined into all-purpose practices. These practices need to be better equipped for the type of client the 21st century demands and thus CA’s need to be holistic in their fundamental approach to both the law and client services.

It goes without saying that the years spent as a CA can often be overlooked. The years of being underpaid and overworked are soon forgotten only to the impairment of that individual. CA’s should be proud of their positions and look to not only survive their years of service but make them unforgettable. This commercial notion of being more than just part of the hamster/wheel regime and instead a vital cog in reforming the identity of legal occupation will not be ignored, even by the odd senior partner or Silk. After all, the best part of being the bottom rung of the ladder is that you are on the ladder, so look no further and take the next step.


Matthew Schoonraad LLB (UWC) is a candidate attorney at C&A Friedlander Attorneys and the Treasurer of the Cape Town Candidate Attorneys Association.


This article was first published in De Rebus in 2016 (Nov) DR 60.

De Rebus