Reflections on our first year as Candidate Attorneys – and some advice for those starting out Quarter 1 2021

By MARICIA SMITH AND TRISTAN MAROT, Published in COVID-19 Observation

Our first steps into the working world came with a mixture of excitement and anxiety. We've been anticipating this for years of study; it is time to finally discover if the correct decision was made when applying to university. We have completed our first 12 months of articles – we still have a lot to learn and are only in the infancy of our careers, however, we have learnt much from a practice perspective, as well as how to navigate being a candidate attorney in an unanticipated global pandemic.

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Law school provides you with the theoretical principles and foundation of law; principles which, as one starts practice, find applicability in the work we do. Law school doesn't train you on the soft skills; how to perform in a workplace, how to carry yourself as a candidate attorney, or how to engage with colleagues or clients. It is this latter issue on which we give our views; from our experience in the past 12 months, from observations of our colleagues and the vastly different – but at times similar – perspectives our two firms afford us.

Whether you are at a large firm or a boutique firm, step one is to get to know your support staff. Your support staff are probably more important to you than your principal. Know their names and, importantly, what their role is within the firm, and always maintain a courteous relationship with them. We have found that approaching a secretary as the first port of call is usually the best option, as they have often been there for years and know the internal office systems backwards. The number of times one will be saved by a call to the IT team, a filing clerk, a secretary and even the tea lady or catering team, will surprise you. It is important to respect them and to know who to approach, depending on your problem. These team members can also often provide insight into office politics. Never underestimate the value of their knowledge!

Be enthusiastic and confident, but remember that you are still learning and growing. Shyness and quietness will not be rewarded in the workplace. Be confident enough to speak up and make your presence known. Of course, understand that you are also probably the most junior person in the room, and so you still need to be respectful in your engagements – we admit, it is difficult to strike the right balance as a new entrant in the legal industry.

Accept that you will likely get some things wrong and will be corrected – that is the point of articles; to attempt a task, to get it wrong and to learn from it. Take comfort from your lack of seniority. While it is never acceptable to be wilfully incompetent, it is expected that you will make mistakes, and so there should always be review mechanisms to ensure that mistakes are caught before they cause an issue. This is the only time when you won't have the pressure of budget or of being the only line between your firms' image and the client's perception of it. Take comfort in the space you have.

The two years of your articles is the ideal time to approach the partner in charge if you hear about a matter which interests you, and offer to assist if you can. Their answer may be no, but it would have been a no if you didn't ask too, and now they know that you are paying attention to what is happening in the firm and are willing to be proactive. However, if you volunteer to be involved, know that you have offered yourself up for more work, so you need to balance that with your normal workload.

Always be a solutions-orientated individual in your workplace. When you identify an error in the legal approach, fault in documents or certain bottlenecks, approach your principal with a suggested solution. Not only are you saving your principle some time, but you are also highlighting that you are innovative and can think on your own.

We have entered the 4th Industrial Revolution in all global industries, including the legal industry. More and more processes in firms are being automated and assisted by Artificial Intelligence. Technology plays a pivotal role in creating a more efficient team, and eases the logging of time spent on a matter. As a candidate attorney, you must ensure that you understand the workings of your firm's internal technologies, and also external applications like Microsoft Teams, Zoom and Skype. In our experience, YouTube is the best free training tool to better understand these applications, and you should take the time to review some online training videos to improve your skills.

Usually, law firms provide you with a laptop and access to Wi-Fi, and due to the COVID-19 pandemic, more and more individuals are expected to work from home. If you don't have access to Wi-Fi at home or access to a laptop, it is best to be open with your principal or senior attorney so that, together, you can come up with a strategy to allow you to continue your work.

If, while you are reading, you become anxious, it is normal. Completing articles is a challenging and stressful time. Many candidate attorneys feel a tinge of burnout. It is difficult to balance working full time, attending classes and studying for your professional board exams with personal time. The best advice we can give you is to go into it with a growth mind-set, discuss your struggles with your fellow candidate attorneys and practise time management – including scheduling days off.

Of course, our first year had a major disruption in the form of a global pandemic and the associated lockdown regulations. This meant that practically overnight we had to adjust from working in an office environment that we had only just got used to to now work from home. We learnt to use new productivity and remote work programmes and generally, for an industry characterised by many older and perhaps more change averse decision makers, the sector has been forced to adopt change and innovate to stay operational. 'Caselines', love it or hate it, has meant far fewer trips to court. Zoom meetings dramatically reduce time dedicated to meetings by removing travel as a factor. However, we both feel we have also not been able to establish the connections we might otherwise have established.

Zoom calls, even with camera's on are still less personal than an in person discussion. Caselines has meant fewer trips to court, it has also meant we have been unable to get to know the court staff and learn from their years of experience. Not being able to interact with fellow CAs at PVT classes or to pop into a colleague's office has meant that our circle of fellow practitioners is small and it is likely to be a lot more difficult for those in our year, who end this year without being retained, to find employment as they won't have those networks to leverage. Hopefully, this year we will move past this pandemic.

Most of all, take the time to actually enjoy your time as a first year CA. In the same way that Grade 8 or 1st year university is often only enjoyable in hindsight, because everything was strange and stressful (but communally so), so too has our experience as first year candidate attorneys been enjoyable. We wish all those who have started their first year of articles at the beginning of 2021 the very best of luck. May your experience be as enjoyable as ours and, ultimately, may we all be retained!

Smith is a Candidate Attorney at LHL Attorneys and Marot a Candidate Attorney at Norton Rose Fulbright.