Twelve tips for students thinking of a career in law Quarter 2 2022

By LERISHA NAIDU, Published in Top Students 2021

1. Commit to the work – Being a lawyer is not quite as sensational as the average television series legal melodrama that grips mass audiences. While it probably does involve a good suit and many a late night, there is a lot about being a corporate lawyer that would not make for riveting television. In competition law, which is my area of specialisation, there is never a dull moment, particularly because the law is comparatively new and developing. However, the reality is that, although cases may often be challenging, interesting and precedent-setting, the everyday practise of law requires a bit of blood and sweat.


2. Grab opportunities to learn from the best and be prepared to unlearn – I began my legal career as a legal researcher to the Deputy Chief Justice of the South African Constitutional Court, Dikgang Moseneke. To kickstart my professional journey under the tutelage of a South African jurist (and person) of such calibre and esteem was an honour. It stretched me to the limit, and then it stretched my limits, cultivating my innate desire to unpick things. It also taught me about changing my mind and the process of unlearning (which is sometimes just as important as learning).

3. Acknowledge that it took a village – Growing up in Newlands West in KwaZulu-Natal, my parents always encouraged social consciousness, discourse and frank debate. They invested in our education and travel, locally and abroad. Cognisant and very much a part of the local community, we also came to learn about the world beyond it. With that foundation in place, I have had the benefit of both support and mentorship throughout my legal career from inspirational leaders in the industry that shaped my approach to legal work and my view of the world. Where I am today is, therefore, the product of a group effort, for which I am deeply grateful. Who was part of your village?

4. To know what you do want, first know what you don't want Let's just say that I started out knowing what I didn't want and was guided by my strengths. I knew that anything remotely mathematical or medical would not play to those strengths (and was not in the public interest). I envisaged writing novels in corner cafes, or being in the music industry (which was also probably not in the public interest). But what it all boiled down to was that I was passionate about words, creative in some ways and technical in others, and interested in people. All those attributes fitted quite nicely within the field of law. And so that's how I stumbled into it – not pursuant to some childhood dream (romantic as that would have been), but rather by a process of elimination and by identifying my strengths and finding a gig that supported them. It isn't a story that you would play inspirational background music to when telling it, but it worked out excellently anyway, because I feel grateful to be doing something I love to do.

5. So, work out what you love and do that – I enjoy engaging with a field of law that is challenging and intellectually stimulating, involving new and different legal issues, and a growing knowledge of different markets. In short, I love being able to learn every day and appease my fairly insatiable desire to be a perpetual student. I love interacting with other legal minds who are leaders in the field. I love meeting other people and learning about them and the work that they do. I love finding creative solutions to legal questions – thinking outside of the proverbial box. I love working in a team and being part of the project of empowering others by sharing knowledge, mentoring and training.

6. Don't take yourself too seriously – That sounds counter-intuitive in the field of law (which is oh-so-serious), but being open to sucking up knowledge like a sponge and being humble throughout the process of learning and growing expedites the developmental process and exposes you to more, more quickly.

7. Embrace resilience and grit – Sounds like a line from a self-help book, but one cannot give up because someone, in a particular moment in time, is critical of you. Those criticisms are simply input for becoming an ultimate powerhouse.

8. Confront the things that you aren't great at – Decide to work through your issues rather than playing 'ostrich in the sand'.

9. Remember that certain things are part of a long game – Quitting before the game is up may amount to a premature surrender – be patient. Equally, know when to change course; resilience does not require commitment to something that is inconsistent with your passions and strengths.

10. Recognise your privilege – In a country with a progressive Constitutional dispensation but deep divisions and inequality, I find it important for me to recognise my privilege, encouraging a constant dialogue with myself around learning and unlearning. We should all make an effort to pay it forward.

11. Be an ally – We must all become effective allies in the fight against in-equality. To do this, we must educate ourselves on what effective ally-ship means in relation to all the '-isms' and what we personally need to learn and unlearn to equip ourselves to better support marginalised groups.

12. Remember you are an agent for change. You have the power to influence your own growth (rather than idly waiting for someone else to do it). You are an agent in your own, unique story – through it, you will inevitably achieve a ripple impact in the world.

Naidu is a Partner at Baker McKenzie (South Africa).