10 steps to becoming an attorney in South Africa

Becoming an attorney in South Africa
19 Mar 2011

This article teaches aspiring legal professionals the basic steps to becoming an attorney in South Africa. Many law students drift through university and are surprised when the law degree comes to its end and all the other students seem to be landing high paying jobs. The difference between the law students that get snapped up and those that get left behind often comes down to preparation. Unless you understand the career path you are not even in the race.

1. Studying to become an attorney – LLB

Once you have decided that law is for you (If you are unsure read “Is law for you?“) then you need to enroll for an LLB degree which takes 4 to 5 years. If you aspire to become an attorney at one of the prestigious law firms, you will need to apply yourself from day 1 because marks count in the competitive world of law.

2. Vacation work at a law firm

Vacation work and shadow work should be sought as early as possible. Most of the larger law firms however only offer vacation work to students in their second last year of LLB. These jobs usually last for a week or two during the July or December holiday. Most of the top firms offer vacation work. It is a great opportunity to experience a professional law environment and to network with existing attorneys. It also looks good on your CV and the contacts you make may help you secure articles later on.

3. Articles of clerkship (“Law articles”)

In order to be admitted as an attorney you have to complete two years of law articles. During that time you will work in a law firm as a “candidate attorney” under the guidance of an attorney. GoLegal has a publishers’ directory which lists several law firms in which one can do their articles.

Alternatively, an aspiring lawyer can do 1 year full time PLT course, and 1 year of articles. See point 8 below.

4. CV and cover letter

Your CV and cover letter will be doing your talking for you for the duration of your search for vacation work and articles. It is worth putting some time into them and giving them that extra attention. A good CV cannot compensate for a bad academic record, but a good academic record cannot compensate for a poorly worded and badly presented CV. Keep it professional and to the point. Avoid extravagant language and do not try sound overly academic. If English is not your first language then get someone to check it for you. You have one chance to make a first impression with a good cover letter and CV.

5. Interview Skills

Interviews need not be as difficult as they are made out to be. A few simple guidelines can take you a long way:

  • Dress well. Not to flashy but wear a clean well fitted suit.
  • Show the firm that you are responsible. Emphasize your position as the head of the debating/chess/library club. It can be in your favour to come across as conservative because this indicates that you are focused and career orientated. Law firms like this.
  • Most importantly, be ambitious. A candidate who seems eager to start working and adding value to the firm is hard to resist. Tell them why you want to be a lawyer; money, prestige, stability, power. Better to seem too greedy than meek or idealistic.
  • Prepare for the interview questions.

6. What if you do not find articles

Finding articles can be difficult. But do not despair, there are a number of options open to you. Keep regular tabs on our Job board section in which law firms may list their vacancies for law articles. Review your CV and interview techniques and continue to apply to as many firms as you need to (http://www.golegal.co.za/careers/). Also look at our events calendar for the opening and closing dates of the various firms for applications to do articles.

You might also consider applying for articles at the public prosecutor or at a legal clinic. Although not considered as prestigious as working for a law firm, the experience might be better, and the environment could prove more interesting and enjoyable. You also have the option of beginning your practical legal training (see our discussion on PLT below). This will buy you time and keep you busy while you are searching for law articles. Another option is to join the Bar and become an advocate, or applying for a job at a bank, insurance company or some other institution that recruits junior legal consultants. There is nothing to stop you from applying for articles while working at another job.

Finally, you can continue to study thereby giving yourself more career options. Apart from doing an honours subject in a legal field of your choice, business diploma’s such as a PDM tend to work well with LLB degrees. Having an additional degree or diploma will not only make you more attractive to law firms, but it will give you work options outside of the traditional attorney career path.

7. Doing your time

When you commence your articles it is important to register your contract with the relevant law society within 2 months of starting, otherwise you will not be registered as candidate attorney and your time spent working will not be recognized by the court when you apply to be admitted as an attorney. DO NOT RELY ON YOUR PRINCIPLE to register your articles in time even though it is his or her duty. Phone the law society of the province you work in and find out exactly what needs to be done to register your articles. Generally the process involves sending your employment contract to the law society together with a registration fee and a cover letter. Do this as early as possible.

The most important relationship you will have in the next two years, is the one between you and your principle, so work at it. Open good channels of communication and learn to set boundaries so that you do not get taken advantage of. Keep in touch with your friends from law school who are doing articles, you will need each other for advice and moral support. And finally, in order to succeed as a candidate attorney, be prepared to work really hard.

8. Practical Legal Training (PLT)

PLT is a compulsory course in practical legal training that every prospective attorney has to complete before they can be admitted as an attorney. The course aims to teach you vital practical legal skills and to prepare you for board exams. Some of the big firms provide an “in-house” PLT course. For everyone else, you have to contact your relevant law society. They will provide you with information about where and when the course can be completed. You have a choice whether to do the long course which is 5 months full time or the condensed course which is approximately 5 weeks full time or 5 months part time (2 evening per week or 1 full day per week).

If you do the full time 5 month course you are entitled to reduce your articles by 1 year. This option is becoming increasingly popular but be advised that many law firms are reluctant to employ a candidate attorney for only 1 year. Nevertheless it is an option worth considering if the thought of 2 years of articles gives you cold shivers.

9. Attorneys’ Admission Examination

After your PLT course it is time to face your Attorneys’ Admission Examination. Attorneys’ Admission Examinations are usually written every February and August. There are 4 exams and you can choose which ones you want to write and when. For example, you might choose to write 2 exams in August of you first year of articles and the next two in February of your second year. Some people prefer to write all 4 at once. It is entirely up to you and there is no one way that we recommend over any other. People who do not have a background in accounts tend to find the bookkeeping and the wills and estates exams especially difficult. There are independent lecturers who offer extra lessons in these subjects and if the teacher is reputable then we recommend that you sign up.

10. Get admitted as an attorney

Once you have completed articles and passed all your board exams you are entitled to apply to court to get admitted as an attorney. This process requires you to launch an actual high court application. A notice of motion together with an affidavit has to be issued in court, and an advocate has to be briefed to move the application on the given date. Your law firm should take care of this whole procedure for you but we recommend that you play an active role in ensuring that your principle completes this process correctly and timeously.

Now you have to ask yourself – Is law really for me? If you don’t want to work for a law firm, there are several career paths that a modern lawyer can take.

If you’re still not sure, here are 5 reasons to study law.



(This article is provided for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. For more information on the topic, please contact the author/s or the relevant provider.)