Recollections of a COVID-afflicted Candidate Attorney
'Your Lordship, it is my humble submission that I was not absent from the 'offices' of my principal for more than 30 working days during one calendar year from the date of commencement of my practical vocational training contract.'
This is a familiar phrase for many candidate legal practitioners who've had to apply for their admissions during 2021 and 2022, as we faced the Level 5 National Lockdown period announced by Cyril Ramaphosa on a casual Monday evening, on 23 March 2020.
I started my articles bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, making the move from sleepy Durban to vibrant Johannesburg, and spending many an evening re-paginating bundles or committing passionately to murder the printer while trying to clear yet another paper jam. A pandemic was not the challenge I had in mind, but as the circumstances of the world evolved, so too did the law and how we started to practise it.
One thing lawyers love to do is TALK, and when we could no longer do it face-to-face, we, like those in many other professions, turned to platforms like Zoom or Microsoft Teams. I sat in front of my screen with a barely washed face, still in my pyjamas at 10 am, not exactly the put-together candidate attorney one might expect. I saw my directors and senior counsels on the most personal of levels: notably without suits, ties and haircuts.
Navigating the virtual horizon was also not easy when most of my directors were part of Generation X and could not figure out that they were, in fact, on mute, or not, and that we could hear the argument they were having with their kids in the background.
Patience is a virtue and virtue is grace
The entirety of my articles was served during the national lockdown as we moved up and down levels. Practical Legal Training (PLT) and the Law Society, in conjunction with LEAD (Legal Education and Development), had to become more lenient in their approach to our suffering.
Trust me, you will be eternally grateful for many years to come that PLT became virtual, or at least partially so, as you can curl up under a blanket with the gas heater and a cup of hot chocolate, rather than being subjected to a cold lecture hall in the middle of winter.
The situation felt even more precarious when our board exams were moved to November, another unprecedented event, having not yet completed half of the syllabus. So, with that in mind, prepare for anything, literally anything, as even our question paper decided to remind us of the existence of COVID with scenarios alluding to the economic hardship that many individuals and companies faced as a direct result of the lockdown. We wracked our brains trying to figure out if we had learnt anything at all in that litigation rotation, which consisted of uploading documents onto CaseLines and never physically going to court.
The return to the office and how to conduct yourself virtually and in person
The return to the office hasn't happened to the extent that it was at the start of my articles. Teams come in depending on necessity, and you can often go weeks without seeing some of your colleagues. Most meetings still happen virtually, and the only court you will likely visit is the magistrates' court, which is truly in a league of its own.
However, teams like Real Estate are in nearly every single day, and have resumed to almost 'normal' due to the necessity of physically seeing clients, and the Deeds Office's reliance on paper.
The office still feels like a ghost town, and there are no big lunches with your work friend group. I feel that this has contributed to a disconnection among colleagues, and loneliness, as we were so integral to each other's daily lives at the office. It creates a culture of isolation and we, as legal practitioners and future legal practitioners, must now put in place new measures to ensure that we don't lose touch with our directors and fellow colleagues, and that we maintain the connections we set out to make.
Some ways that you can achieve this:
With all the negatives that COVID-19 brought, I truly believe it hastened the very rigid legal profession into the fourth industrial revolution and enabled hybrid working, which was never thought to be possible. With that in mind, we must appreciate the flexibility that is now available to us.
To an extent, however, I do feel robbed of a true articles experience and would've loved to have been more exposed to the pomp and splendour that the profession is known for. It's my truest wish that, as the restrictions are lifted and life feels a little more normal, we will be able to strike a balance between the traditional practice of law and embracing the digital age.
Essack is an Associate with Lawtons Africa. The article was supervised by Penny Chenery, a Director.