So there I was on my first day as a Candidate Legal Practitioner (CLP), convinced that everything I had studied in my law degree and Masters over the past five years would ensure smooth sailing in my new journey. This was my first incorrect assumption, as I soon discovered in the ensuing weeks and months.
Not such a fun fact: when you appear for the first time in court, you will suddenly remember that you once thought law school was stressful! The reality is that when those endless hours of research or study transform into practical and tangible law, it is quite a punch to the gut. Indeed, you may be forgiven for questioning your wisdom in choosing a law degree, and it may seem an entirely saner proposition to live on an island, 'far from the madding crowd!'
The fact that you have excelled during your degree will not necessarily prepare you for the sheer volume and complexity of legal issues you confront during your Practical Vocational Training (PVT). This is not an observation meant to discourage, but be aware that your past pressures were vastly different. As a CLP, turning theory into practice is a steep learning curve. Yes, you will be told to develop thicker skin; to work longer hours than that research paper you aced; to interact with individuals of varying temperaments or degrees of patience; where 'urgent' becomes a new buzz word and you are researching law you never knew existed!
It may seem demotivating at first to not know everything that you encounter. However, it is essential to remember that in order to maintain balance emotionally, physically and mentally, we are students who have succeeded in obtaining articles, which is an accomplishment on its own, and that our legal education has really only just begun. Even in moments when I have felt deeply stressed, overwhelmed or demotivated, I hold firm my ingrained values and principles that steered me towards a career in truth, justice and championing the vulnerable. Nothing should set you off your course if your innate compass holds true and steady, and learning is your ultimate goal.
In my humble opinion, here is what I have learned thus far:
- Ensure that, as a student, your search for articles begins much earlier than you require it. If you know which field you want to practise in, it is also wise to begin articles in a firm in the area of law where your interests lie. It serves no purpose to do articles in a labour law firm when you actually love criminal law.
- Many firms offer vacation work or graduate programmes, I would advise, even prior to applying for articles, that you try your hand at vacation opportunities. This will assist in narrowing the area of law you like, as well as familiarising yourself with how you would be expected to work.
- During articles, you will be stretched to your limits, and your stress levels may skyrocket. Be assured that law firms generally have mentors and fellow young professionals to guide you and play an overseeing role, which is actually an advantage. If uncertain, always do your research and ask questions. Remember, no one is perfect, mistakes are part of learning, and you are deserving of respect.
- Working hard and smart go hand in hand. Late nights may be inevitable, depending on your workload, and getting used to working long hours straight after a lifetime of having free periods between classes at university is a skill on its own. Try your best to be organised. Your end goal is to learn to apply the law correctly, but also understand the necessity for work-life balance, even in a highly pressurised environment. Honest, understanding and transparent communication between you and your mentor is encouraged.
- Never underestimate enthusiasm, dedication, diligence and initiative. While you may not know the ins and outs of curatorship or vaguely remember a Latin term on the spot, the initiative taken to try your best, even if the answer may be wrong, is one to be lauded.
- Be open to criticism, because at the end of the day, it's actually an advantage to you! I am inspired by the people I work with, and accepting constructive criticism and using it to better yourself will only make you a better legal practitioner one day. Although it may be a first dealing with so many personalities in a highly stressful and competitive environment, it's important to remember to focus on yourself at the end of the day, just focus on doing what you need to do and absorb what you can to better your future self in the legal profession.
- Be patient with yourself. Sometimes you will make a silly mistake, and sometimes you won't understand a simple concept and that's okay, because you are learning and being trained, and in time, you will surprise yourself if you work hard enough.
- Above all, remain optimistic. The value of knowledge, skills and experience gained is immeasurable and yours for life. As Nelson Mandela once stated: 'Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again''. I, like every human being, am a work in progress. Embrace the growth, challenges and roads that led you to where you are.
Pillay is a Candidate Legal Practitioner with Fairbridges Wertheim Becker.