Skills to becoming a lawyer Quarter 2 2022

By EMLYN WILLIAMS, SHU'AIB DATAY AND SIPHESIHLE MAYEDWA, Published in Top Students 2021

The legal profession in South Africa offers a wide range of career possibilities. If you've chosen to complete your Practical Vocational Training to be admitted as a legal practitioner, it is important not to wait until your final year to secure articles. There is a high demand for positions, and students need to distinguish themselves throughout their degrees. Most law firms recruit students in the second year of their studies.

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It is also crucial to do vacation work at firms to ascertain whether you are a good fit for the firm and whether the firm is a good fit for you. Whilst university equips you with a good theoretical base, the jump from university to practice can be unforgiving and, therefore, it is important to hone certain practical skills which will carry you through your articles. A good way to approach bridging the gap is to be enthusiastic and open to learning, to upskill yourself and to approach your seniors for continued mentorship and guidance.

Becoming a candidate attorney is a humbling experience in that the realisation of how little you know happens very quickly. In the same way, it is liberating watch yourself go from being a confused beginner to a skilled and confident attorney. Make the most of doing the more unimportant things – indexing and paginating a file, for example, may seem tiresome, but it is an excellent way to learn the way in which a matter is run, and the timeline or sequence of the various stages of litigation.

Below are the skills that are important to a candidate legal practitioner starting articles:

1. Be organised. Many attorneys' downfall is their inability to keep a good diary system. Imagine a plea is due on a certain day, but because you are running 50 matters at once, you miss the due date. You may have had an excellent case, but now do not have the opportunity to put it before the court. It is a good idea to familiarise yourself with the basic compositions of a file. In litigation matters, files are usually divided into pleadings, correspondence and background documents. Try to keep your files organised, there is nothing more embarrassing than being asked for information or a document by a client or your principal when your files are in a mess. Often, candidate legal practitioners are required to run with multiple matters at once, and it is important to have a diary system which can assist with this. Diarising when pleadings are due, reporting to clients and following up on matters is crucial. Keeping a proper diary system helps to prevent matters falling through the cracks and helps to ensure that you meet your deadlines.

2. The devil is in the details. The make or break of your case is usually in the detail of certain documentation, and it is important to peruse documentation from your client carefully. Read emails carefully; make sure you understand instructions. It is better to clarify what you need to do, rather than misunderstand and present something that is in stark contrast with what was actually required.

3. Develop your technical skills. Legal Education and Development (LEAD) offers numerous short courses for candidate attorneys. It is important to sign up for these courses, especially when it is relevant to the work that you do in a specific department at a law firm. Most candidate attorneys will spend their initial time in litigation, meaning that the civil procedure rules will be your bible. Know the rules of court very well!

4. Writing and keeping record of file notes. The golden rule to remember in law is to cover your back – ensure that contemporaneous file notes are written, recording everything you have done on a file, be it making a phone call, taking instructions or following up with your opponent or client. File notes should bear the date on which they are made, and the file or matter reference.

5. Relationship management. It is important to always show initiative on matters that you are involved in, as this may result in you receiving more work which will assist you in developing your skill set. It is vitally important to build good relationships, especially with the partners in the firm, your peers and court staff. Remember to remain professional and treat everyone with respect.

Lastly, it is important to find your niche, as law is a diverse profession with many areas of specialisation. It is always great when you are drawn to an area of law which excites you, and which you believe has good potential as a long-term career choice. Always think beyond your articles, so you may ensure that you progress further than just completing your articles. Most of all, enjoy the experience and work hard – the skills and experience you learn during articles will set you up for the rest of your career.

Williams, Datay and Mayedwa are Associates with Fairbridges Wertheim Becker.