INTRODUCTION Quarter 2 2022

By MYRLE VANDERSTRAETEN, Published in Top Students 2021

The past two years have been punctuated by uncertainty. The coronavirus pandemic will undoubtedly go down in the history books as a grim period starting when, on 31 December 2019, the World Health Organisation reported 'novel 'viral pneumonias of unknown cause' in Wuhan, China.

When President Ramaphosa announced a countrywide lockdown on 26 March 2020 little did we know that the initial restrictions from 26 March to 16 April would be extended again, and again. For the Class of 2021 the anticipated final two years of student fun – amidst the hard work – networking, making lifelong friendships and vacation training were pretty much curtailed.

It has been my privilege to 'meet' the top students at the universities in this feature. They demonstrate the flexibility and adaptability that was necessary not only to get through this period and the challenges that have come as a result, but also to excel despite personal fears. Their responses to the questions I posed indicate a greater awareness of the need for family and friends, for social interaction, recognition of an unequal world, the need to excel but at the same time that they have but this one life – and fun is an important element of a life truly lived.

However, these graduates also comment on the feeling of isolation, the difficulties of lectures at a distance and of being at a distance from classmates and friends. Elizabeth Rimmer, chief of British organisation, LawCare commented that junior lawyers, in particular, have been adversely affected by working from home during lockdown. '50% of our support contacts last year were from junior lawyers,' she said. 'Deterioration in mental health, struggles with working from home, isolation and poor supervision were common concerns shared with us.'. She also said, 'The most vulnerable time in anyone's legal career is making that transition into practice and it's particularly tough to embark on a legal career during these uncertain and difficult times. We would urge legal workplaces to reach out and listen to the concerns of junior staff and take active steps to provide them with support and nurturing supervision.' And most senior management at South African law firms have made a considerable effort to do just that while struggling to come to terms with an unprecedented event themselves.

But despite the downside of the pandemic, as is always the case, there is an upside too and it is an exciting time to start out. The way work is done has changed and law students will be a part of a new legal industry. As some of the NQs of 2020 and 2021 have noted, they had the advantage of being tech savvy. So, while they were at a considerable disadvantage in some areas, their advantage was being able to assist more senior lawyers with the technical changes to traditional ways of working.

It is likely that a hybrid way of working will be the norm in future and it certainly does offer an opportunity to improve that work/life balance. But it also comes with the danger of always being 'on duty' – this is an issue about which all levels in the hierarchy will need to be aware if the danger of burnout, always prevalent in the legal industry, does not rise as firm and client blur the lines between work and personal time.

As many of the Class of 2021 begin their journey to become admitted attorneys, it is to be hoped that their flexibility, adaptability and acknowledgment of the value of having people in their lives (and of being there to support others too) will make for a kinder legal environment.

I wish the Class of 2021 much success, careers that bring satisfaction and lives filled with that all important element – fun.