Life as a boutique law firm Candidate Legal Practitioner Quarter 2 2022

By BRANDON PINKER, Published in Top Students 2021

So, you have decided you want to be a lawyer. That's what I thought too. When I registered to study for my BCom Law and subsequent LLB qualification, I did so with a degree of naivety, because I did not expect what was in store for me. This was partly due to the rigours and emotional rollercoaster that is practical vocational training – honestly, nothing and no-one can prepare you for the wild ride that is articles – also partly due to being unable to foresee these so called 'unprecedented times'. But fear not. With the right advice, mentorship and hard work, you will get through it all.

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'God works wonders now and then; Behold a lawyer, an honest man.' – Benjamin Franklin. Jokes aside, not all boutique law firms have the same work ethics and strategies, nor will they demand the same level of excellence from their minions. Some principals are friendly, and from what I have heard, some are not. Finding the boutique law firm and principal who is a right fit for you is a matter of calculated luck. I can attest that your colleagues do indeed become your extended family, so if you have the luxury, start looking for positions early, and choose wisely by asking yourself what type of environment you want to work in.

Set yourself apart

In order to set yourself apart and obtain a candidate attorney position at a law firm, you need to be dynamic and hard-working while, at the same time, having a positive attitude and being excellent at working in a team-based, deadline-driven environment. This is easier said than proven or done. The first of many steps is to get that initial foot in the door for an interview. This is partly achieved by ensuring that you have a high level of academic achievement, specifically in those university modules that underpin the fields in which your chosen law firms specialise, as well as by being well-spoken. The latter can be communicated in your covering letter, which must be neat, concise and informative, but more importantly, be tailored to the specific firm.

Having said all that, you need not only to set yourself apart during your interviews when applying to be a candidate legal practitioner, but also when it comes to the two-year interview process that is practical vocational training. Due to the nature of a boutique law firm, there is no one to hide behind and little to no margin for work being repeated. Accordingly, you are expected to constantly learn and grow as a legal professional, and not to make the same mistake twice.

Hard work and determination to succeed

The reality is that, generally, in life, and specifically the legal profession, nothing gets handed to you on the proverbial silver platter. It probably goes without saying that one needs to be willing to put in the hours and stand out by applying yourself and giving your best effort to every task bestowed upon you, no matter how miniscule these may seem. It is important to remember that the more you know about the inner workings of a transaction, or the reasoning behind why something is done in a certain way, the better legal practitioner you will become in the long run. Therefore, although practical vocational training provides an incredible opportunity to learn, whether an individual maximises opportunities given to them depends on the degree of their positive attitude.

The impact of two COVID years on the way things are done

We, as a nation of honourable people, which, depending on who you ask, naturally includes legal practitioners, have been forced to adapt to a new way of living and working in a short space of time. Gone are the days where legal practitioners have mountains of paperwork and vast libraries to trawl through – at least that has been my experience in a non-litigation environment. These days, a legal practitioner's most useful tool, apart from the obvious – their brain – is the laptop they cart around 24/7. Therefore, especially in a boutique firm where there isn't the luxury of access to secretaries and typists, ensure that you are at least well versed in the most widely used word processing and document creation software, and be able to format these documents to perfection. Above all, be prepared to learn the particular styles of those for whom you will work – each person will have a different preference. Furthermore, and apart from the reduction of paperwork, the main adaptation of working life can be seen in the continued preference for online meetings, rather than those in person.

Day-to-day advice

Although setting yourself apart and hard work are key to success, here are a few basic tips:

i.Ensure you constantly learn, and ask questions when you realise you do not understand something;

ii.Don't leave tasks to the last minute – time management skills are key to not having regret down the line when your deadlines are not met;

iii.Always carry a pen and paper when attending a meeting or summoned to receive instructions. No matter how good you think your memory is, you will likely forget something; and

iv.Lastly, a quick trip to the office coffee machine or local coffee shop can be a life saver, but don't forget to drink water.

I am surviving practical vocational training, so can confirm it does not kill; and yes, it does make you stronger.

Pinker is a Candidate Attorney with Falcon & Hume.