Q&A WITH MICHELLE DAVID, NORTON ROSE FULBRIGHT SOUTH AFRICA CHAIR
Q: If you could go back in time, what would you tell the version of yourself trying to decide which career to choose?
A: Don't follow what you are passionate about, rather analyse and consider what you are good at. As weird as it may sound, passion grows from being really good at something, while being passionate about something may not mean that you have the skills or aptitude to be good at it. The quickest way to kill a passion is to realise that you are just not cut out for it. It is better to support a passion by having a career that will fund it. Bob Marley is said to have been passionate about soccer; there are video clips available of him playing, but I, for one, am glad that he chose to do something that he excelled at, that he had a skill set for, a unique voice. There is no doubt that I would tell the younger, more idealistic me that despite the many who say that you should follow your passion, ideally, you should look to a career that you are going to be great at – it is even better if you have the skills to be good at what you are passionate about. It always makes me sit up and listen in interviews, when someone says they chose a career in law because they are passionate about it, but never seem to follow up with why they are good at it, and so should be employed.
Q. What are the lessons you've learnt, going from CA to Chair of a global law firm?
A: There are just so many, but I think the most important one is to listen to understand and not to respond. To take time to understand what someone is saying without interruption must be the most difficult thing, but it is probably the most useful tool, especially if you are considering a career as a lawyer. Not only does it allow you to fully understand a conversation, it enables you to recognise different perspectives and emotions. To me, it is the highest form of respect that you can give any co-worker. At the end, you may not be moved from your own views, but what you have done is given the other party an opportunity to be properly heard, and yourself the benefit of properly considering and understanding a different approach. Whether as a CA or as the Chair, it's a skill that will assist you to grow both in your career and personally. Importantly, you will take time to understand and appreciate client issues. The other important thing that I have learnt is to respect everyone and to be open to being wrong about something. Being wrong is not something to take personally; we all get it wrong at some time or another. It is, however, an opportunity to learn and grow, embrace it and try to avoid doing things in the same way.
Q. How do you keep yourself humble, considering your career successes to date?
A: Throughout my life, I have acknowledged that who I am is not because of me, but rather because of a higher power and my family. I have always been a firm believer in a person not being defined by their job title, but rather their worth as a person, so I try at every step to avoid my job being a benchmark for who I am. While I am grateful for the many opportunities and the wonderful career that I have been blessed with, I am mindful to not define myself or others by tags of school, work or title, and to show everyone the respect that they deserve because of their actions.
Q. How do you manage your time so that you are able to be a good career woman, wife and mother?
A: I think that regardless of the stage you are at in life, you never have time; what you do have is the ability to manage your time. My model is to work as much as possible in the week so that I can spend time with my family and friends on weekends. I also try, and sometimes fail, never to be overwhelmed by my daily schedule. It's a matter of trying to take each day as it comes and acknowledging that the career of law demands flexibility, because clients never work according to your schedule. I try not to be all things to everyone all of the time; when I am with my family, I try to keep work at bay, and when I am at work, I try to focus on what is needed in that day. Early on, I recognised that each person has their own needs, and so developing your own schedule is vital if you want to get some balance.
Q: Any advice for graduates?
A: Remember that getting a degree is only the first step in your career in law. Being a candidate attorney is an opportunity to learn the practice of law, so make time for it. Give yourself the opportunities to make the most of it. Use the platform to understand your strengths in the field, as well the careers that exist within the legal field. Importantly, accept that you don't know everything, are not expected to know everything – so be sure to ask questions.