A University of Johannesburg Grad and current candidate attorney, Talita Myburg gives us her take on the legal profession!
So you watched Boston Legal and now you’re already having your bespoke suit ordered and attending toast masters? Legal practice in South Africa is not what you see on television. A lawyer is fundamentally a problem-solver, people come to you for advice on issues that very often have profound effects on their lives. Your run of the mill general practitioner that handles divorces, wills etc. is faced with people who are sure as hell not happy to have to come to you – it’s a grudge purchase with returns entirely dependant on the skill of the lawyer involved. But the rewards are there if you’re into it; designing that iron clad ante-nuptial contract which gets you the nod of respect from your fellow legal colleagues, achieving that very rare thing called justice for someone wronged or just the relief of someone who can finally put his divorce behind him.
The upside of being a lawyer is that what you put in is what you get out and this starts with your degree. DO NOT believe anyone who says 60% for a test is okay. When you start applying for work as an article clerk (compulsory practical work before you are allowed admission as an attorney) getting 60% will mean a salary of about R4000 in Johannesburg but getting 70’s could mean a salary of R20 000 plus perks. More important than your salary though is that high marks allows you the opportunity to work with other lawyers who are good at what they do and will teach you much more than you will ever learn in varsity. As to your studies as such, be prepared for sacrifices. Being smart alone just won’t cut it. Law consists of mountains of information that you will be expected to know off by heart and apply. Comprehending an Act is not enough, you need to know the relevant sections before you can even begin to think on your feet. So that’s the first important point – get the best marks you can no matter the time you have to dedicate to your studies.
Secondly, you want to start getting experience by starting to work for lawyers, either on a part time basis or by applying for holiday courses. What should not be underestimated is networking and doing this type of work is exactly that. Competition for articles is really high and this gives you a foot in the door; best case scenario you don’t even have to apply for articles, they’ll offer it to you.
You have three choices in obtaining a legal qualification; first there is a BA Law degree (three years) which has a humanities aspect to it i.e. it’s supplemented with subjects such as psychology which I’ll admit I don’t know much about. Secondly there’s a BCom Law which is a commercial degree (three years) where you do some law subjects and some business subjects with a major in one business subject of your choice. This degree alone is not enough to become a lawyer; you’ll have to supplement it with an LLB which amounts to filling in the ‘gaps’ in the normal LLB degree. This can be done in two years but you can choose to do it in three and will also amount to an honours degree. The last option is to do a straight LLB degree (four years). I would recommend doing the BCom route, not only because I did it but because a lawyer is often involved in matters that require a general knowledge of business and this is the aspect where lawyers more often than not slip up, which is a very big deal but more on that later.
So what can you now do with your qualification? Should you decide to practice as a lawyer you have to do a minimum one year articles with a qualified lawyer. You will be registered as a candidate attorney, then sent for a ‘fit and proper’ where a random attorney interviews you and –hopefully- sends a report to the Law Society that he or she deems you to be a fit person to practice as a lawyer. You then apply for your right of appearance and as soon as you get that, you get delivered to be slaughtered in court - in the beginning at least. You will make mistakes but as long as you learn from them you’ll be okay. To qualify as a lawyer within one year, you have to attend classes through L.E.A.D., either part time in day or at night or you can choose to attend them full-time. Otherwise you can choose to extend your clerkship over two years. Then you have to pass a series of legal board exams. Once that is done you can apply to be admitted as an attorney of law.
Another route you can follow to becoming a lawyer is through practicing as a public prosecutor for five years, then you don’t need a degree. You also don’t have to be lawyer as such – the other main legal practitioner is an advocate. The main difference between an attorney and an advocate is that attorneys rarely choose to argue complicated cases in court. Instead they instruct an advocate who is a specialist litigator. If you’re good you can charge a substantial hourly fee but it’s no walk in the park. To become an advocate you have to apprentice to an advocate and write a set of exams. The catch is that advocates must be instructed by a lawyer in the same way that a specialist doctor must be referred customers by general practitioner. Being sociable and building a good network is thus essential.
Should you decide not to practice as a lawyer or an advocate, you can choose to work as a legal advisor which companies employ, you can choose to go into various other industries like insurance and particularly so if you did a B.Com. You may also decide that law isn’t for you and either do an honours in your business major instead of doing an LLB honours or after your LLB honours. Doing an honours either way, I would regard as essential in the job market. If you do a straight LLB, it’s worth doing a masters because your specialisation does give you an edge in getting the best position with the best salary.
Lastly, I would like to mention an issue that many people don’t associate with law, ethics. Having good ethics is critical in the legal industry mainly because it’s a very conservative industry and is internally policed by the Law Society who set the bar higher than what is legally required. Acting irresponsibly or even unseemly could get you struck off the roll very quickly. For example, one lawyer entered a competition where the most innovative way of advertising a deodorant would win. He strapped it to his manhood and skydived naked which got him the prize. He was also reported and serious appeals and interventions were required to save his job. Break any law and you are gone permanently. Mislead the court on any score, even in the defence of your client and expect trouble. Personally, I believe it’s a good thing because temptation is around every corner and if sanction were not so severe, the opportunity for abuse of information and the law would win out too often. Your job is always to act in the best interests of your client but never at the cost of the law. If you find a loophole in the law – good for you, you’re allowed to exploit it because it’s not illegal, it’s laxity on the part on the legislator.
So there’s a run down of what you can expect of the legal profession – have fun!