Becoming an advocate – Leave the law firm and go to the Bar

Law 1
20 Jun 2015

At some point during or after your legal studies you will be faced with the choice. Should I become an advocate or an attorney? We have in the past explored the differences between the two career paths. If you feel that donning a robe and appearing in court is the career for you then this article highlights the fundamental steps you must take to join the bar and become an advocate.

 1. How the profession is structured

Advocates are organized into societies in the major centers in South Africa. These are known historically as “Bars”. Bars are fraternities of men and women who practice as advocates in the centers where the Bars are situated. As the body representing the advocates’ profession, the purpose of the Bar is to maintain professional standards and conduct among practicing advocates, and sometimes to enforce discipline amongst its members. It also provides training for aspiring advocates at the beginning of their careers. Members are always ready to assist one another and it is not unusual for the most junior member of the Bar to approach a senior member with any problem of practice that he might encounter. The Bar enforces a strict code of ethical conduct and professional integrity to which advocates are required to adhere.

2. Joining the bar and doing pupilage

Before admission to the Bar, you will have to serve an apprenticeship (called a pupilage) of one year. There are different bar councils in all the major centers around South Africa but space is limited. It is therefore recommended to apply to more than one in case you are not accepted by the one in your area.

Joining a bar is not compulsory and you can technically practice independently. However, although some experienced advocates may find some success as independent advocates, it is very hard to get started as a junior advocate without the structure and guidance of the bar.

Once you apply for acceptance at the bar you will be interviewed by a group of senior advocates. If you are accepted a practicing advocate will be assigned as your mentor for a year.

Unlike law articles, pupilage is a non-paying learning experience. But some bars do provide financial assistance to advocates during their pupilage. Pupilage will immerse you in valuable learning curve. It provides you with an opportunity to make contacts in the profession before going out on you own.

3. After pupilage

Once completing pupilage and becoming a member of the bar, you will need to join a group of advocates. Advocate groups are the offices from which advocates operate. Joining an advocate group gives you the benefit of shared facilities such as a library and receptionist. It also puts you in the vicinity of other advocates from whom you can seek advice as a junior advocate.

Joining a group means that you have to rent office space (or chambers) within that group. This can set you back several thousands rand a month if you join a group in a swanky area. You will therefore have to get work quickly in order to cover your costs.

Fortunately many advocate groups offer junior advocate assistance programs whereby the group subsidizes all or a portion of your office rental for you first year or two at the chambers.

4. Getting admitted as an Advocate

As soon as you have an LLB degree you are eligible to apply to court and be listed on the roll of advocates. This application takes the form of a high court application and the court is essentially confirming that you are a fit and proper person and that you intend to uphold the laws and values of the justice system.

Once admitted you will then be able to practice as an advocate in South Africa. It is however customary to join one of the Bars to benefit from the strong collective spirit and experience of the fraternity. It is common for graduates to only apply for admission during pupilage but there is nothing stopping you from getting admitted before.

5. Bar exams

During your pupilage you will be required to write and pass the National Bar Examination of the General Council of the Bar. These exams will test your practical ability as a potential advocate. The exams are written in the middle of the year and evening lectures must be attended in the months preceding the exams.

See also: The functions and differences between state attorneys, state advocates and prosecutors

(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.)
Yoni Balkind

Yoni Balkind (BA LLB PDM) is an attorney, entrepreneur and an expert in digital content. He currently heads the Lexis Practical Guidance product suite at LexisNexis South Africa. Read more about Yoni Balkind