So You Want to be a Lawyer? From dreams to reality – and back again
Author: Musa Zimu – Candidate Attorney
*Supervised by: Ushir Ahir – Director
So you want to be a lawyer? How very noble. You’ve probably recited countless times when questioned on your motivation for entering this profession that you want to “use the law as a tool for social justice”. You’ve reached for that answer as swiftly and mechanically as a toddler reaches for the edge of a tablecloth. The first few times you said it as if you meant it with every fibre of your being. After a few “we regret to inform you” emails the words spilled perfunctorily out of your mouth.
You were probably one of those annoyingly gifted kids in high school. Your gift of the gab had the audience spellbound at public speaking tournaments, and unravelled opponents’ arguments without much effort during inter-high debates. You didn’t need to kiss the Blarney stone; eloquence was second nature to you. You were the head girl or head boy, a straight-A student, your blazer littered with scrolls displaying your array of skills. Everyone around you had swallowed your star.
Or perhaps you were one of the glib-tongued rebels who found themselves called to the principal’s office more often than you reported to class on time. He would see you walk in, sigh deeply and rub his temples in exasperation. You’d both been here before, so he knew what was coming. You were about to argue your case, and you were about to do it so articulately and convincingly that it would probably be better for him to just let you off with a stern warning. In a battle of wits you had the bigger arsenal, and you chose to use your powers for darkness.
Whichever of the two you were, it was only natural that you would be drawn to the profession that would allow you to put your wit and intellect on display. Perhaps even an aptitude test confirmed the obvious. You were born to be a lawyer. You figured it wouldn’t require much more from you than what you naturally had. One little Baccalaureus Legum later and “bippity boppity boo!”, a successful, high-earning attorney with a power-suit and a pilot case.
You will mutter under your breath often, “Why am I even doing this?”
What you didn’t know but would quickly realise just a few months into your practical vocational training, was that you probably overestimated (probably even overstated) your own brilliance and underestimated the profession. Your academic prowess and way with words will only be a foot in the door, but to pry it open and earn a seat at the table will require so much more of your character that you will often ask yourself if you’re really cut out for this. You will mutter under your breath often, “Why am I even doing this?”
Whereas in university you only had to contend with your textbooks, and perhaps a few difficult lecturers refusing you your distinctions, in practice there are number of balls to juggle simultaneously. Time management, people management, respect for time-honoured procedure, and self-management. I cannot overemphasise self-management. You already know you have a high I.Q, but practice requires that you have a high E.Q. as well.
The study of law and the practice of law are vastly different.
You will need to be teachable, because being able to recite the five elements of a delict will prove to be obsolete. The study of law and the practice of law are vastly different. There is a way that will seem best to you, but your principal, with decades of experience behind them, directs another. They’ve made costly mistakes and taken countless blows in order to know what strategy works best for any situation. If you’re lucky they’ll be open to an exchange of ideas and welcome your suggestions. You’re the luckier one though, as you get the benefit of their experience.
You will need to be humble and have a sober-minded view of your work and your place in the chain of command. You’re no longer the brightest star in the constellation. Your cum laude means nothing when it’s time to index and paginate urgent application papers at 10pm. It’s not glamorous work. Some might even say it’s menial work. But it needs to be done, and it teaches you not only precision and attention to minute detail, but also the principle that everyone on the team must pull together to do what needs to be done to protect and assert the rights and interests of the client. Your senior associate might have done most of the intellectual heavy lifting in drafting the papers, but your assigned task, though appearing insignificant, is an important cog in a very big wheel. There’s no gloss, there’s no sheen, it just needs to be done, and done well. If you can resolve to be disciplined and excellent in the small things, you will be disciplined and excellent in the director-level things. It’s not a switch you turn on once you get a corner office.
If you allow yourself to be browbeaten into throwing in the towel, you will miss out on the great opportunity for self-development that this profession has to offer.
You will need to be resilient, because you will make many, many mistakes in your burgeoning career, and no amount of perfectionism will make that avoidable. You will endure your principal angrily asking how you could let something happen, and you will apologise. Sometimes you will have to apologise for mistakes that weren’t made by you and learn to take it on the chin. You cannot collapse into a heap in your apartment and decide to quit. If you allow yourself to be browbeaten into throwing in the towel, you will miss out on the great opportunity for self-development that this profession has to offer.
You will need to be shrewd. Some clients will be more demanding than others, and you will need to delicately yet firmly teach them to manage their expectations. As a junior you will have files and files dumped on your desk with impossible deadlines, and you will have to learn how to communicate your lack of capacity without sounding insubordinate. It’s a very delicate balance. It’s very thin ice, and you will learn to skate gracefully.
Along the way there will be small victories and little milestones that will keep you going and remind you of your why. Your first court appearance wearing an impossibly big robe; the first order granted in your favour; your first “Fantastic job!” from your principal. Perhaps your very first article published in Without Prejudice.
Soon enough you won’t need any approval from your principal to send emails. You’ll develop your own communication style and win your boss’s trust. Your drafts will come back with less and less tracked changes until one day all your principal needs to do is just glance at them. You will be sent to meetings without a senior holding your hand. Look at you, coming into your own as a lawyer!
If you stay the course and don’t throw in the towel, I guarantee you will find the answer to the “Why am I even doing this” question you posed to yourself at the start of your journey. Not only will you find your why, but you will redefine it and refine it. And that “why” will be your north star and your anchor when the overwhelming demands of the legal profession squeeze everything you have out of you. You will be convicted and held together by your why. So you want to be a lawyer? Noble. Strap in, grasshopper - you’re in for quite the ride.
Lawtons Africa is a South African law firm. With roots that grew out of seeds sown in down-town Johannesburg in 1892, our history features various changes and different names. Our team of lawyers, including directors, consultants, associates and candidate attorneys is highly qualified, market-recognised and skilled. For further information, visit www.lawtonsafrica.com