By JADE TESS WEINER, Published in So you want to be a lawyer? STUDENT FEATURE

So you want to be a lawyer?

I did – I grew up with the idealistic notion that many of us have about being a lawyer: standing up in front of a packed court room, donning an elegant black robe, arguing with passion and conviction, waving our fingers and stunning the judge before us with a nuanced and impressive argument. "Ally McBeal" (the "Suits" of my generation) also helped to glorify the idea that I would become a powerful, designer-pencil-skirted defender of justice.


After completing law school, I took the traditional path of completing articles and board exams. During this time (and by time I mean countless hours reading documents, drafting contracts, re-reading documents and contracts, compiling files and sitting at a desk for extended periods) I realised how different my perception had been from reality. Taking the path of pupillage, I could have been closer to the glorified attorney in my mind – but I felt articles at South Africa's biggest law firm was not an opportunity I should pass up.

Working in the big corporate legal world is a dream of many people, but it was not mine. Even though I worked with a supportive team and in an environment of expertise and excellence, I decided to leave the day my contract of articles expired and begin a journey of exploration, both of self and of professional opportunities.

I worked in the entrepreneurial, start-up space, as well as in the non-profit, volunteer space. Travelled. Completed further qualifications as a notary public and as a mediator. Spoke to many people, both within the legal world and in other professional arenas. Used every opportunity to learn from the experience of others and evaluate what interested me.

I realised that the reason I pursued a law degree in the first place was to be a tangible force in the promotion and realisation of the South African Constitution, to uphold the rule of law, give voice to the voiceless and make meaningful reform in areas of human rights matters. While I was always aware of this conviction on an intellectual level, it was through my experiences of loving human rights law and constitutional law at university, favouring pro bono hours over billable hours during articles, and my extra-curricular voluntary activities in the non-profit space that made me realise this emotionally.

It is valuable to point out opportunities available to graduates aside from the articles or pupillage routes. The choice of fields open to legal minds is far-reaching and diverse. Returning to my alma mater – the University of the Witwatersrand – where I worked as a research and teaching associate, allowed further insight. Working as faculty and being on the other side of the lecture hall provided new insights into a law degree. My passion for knowledge promoted reciprocal learning between my students and myself. A great lesson to always be humble enough to emphasise and internalise experiences and ideas shared. Teaching critical legal thinking is not a passive transference of knowledge. It is instead, active, passionate debate and discussion.

I was fortunate enough to work as the legal research clerk for Chief Justice Mogoeng during 2017. This year opened my mind and my heart even more to the opportunities of a legal degree. The experience cemented my realisation that life and law are inherently connected. The diversity of cases brought before the Constitutional Court demonstrated the limitlessness of the law, and that each area requires a variety of roles in which legal thinking, the kind gained from a law degree, transcends legal issues into the realm of human activity and behaviour. Working with the Chief Justice, a man of such high moral standing, religious belief and legal intellect inspired me to strive to apply theories of justice to everyday life.

I currently work as a legal researcher for the Helen Suzman Foundation, a non-profit organisation that works to create and promote good governance, transparency and accountability. The work we do is so diverse, from commenting on bills, to educating the public on topical social issues, to public interest litigation – every day brings the challenge of growing my understanding of the law in the South African context and learning new skills in a stimulating and vibrant working environment.

I am leaving for the University of Oxford to pursue my BCL degree – a Master's course. It was at the time of selecting my subject choices (four out of 40 options) that I realised how my journey in various roles, in various spheres had positioned me to make these choices without question. My degree will focus on human rights law, socio-economic development and equality law. I know that the ease of this decision is due to the self-awareness and knowledge gained through my tangential career path.

I used to envy my peers who are making partner at law firms or are gaining fame as advocates, thinking that had I stayed, I too would be celebrating these successes. These feelings have long dissipated. I realised that each experience, in every sector, with each individual, whether in the law or in life presents a learning opportunity. I am so grateful for the way my law degree has afforded me the skills of critical thinking, questioning with conviction, arguing passionately, mediating difficult circumstances, seeing situations in new ways and not being quick to judge. All these lessons are transferable beyond law, to life, and allow for the ever-evolving possibilities in career choice.

Weiner writes in her personal capacity.