The long and winding road to becoming a lawyer

16 Apr 2019

When pondering the question of whether one should become an attorney, the following wise words come to mind, “The study of Law is sublime, and its practice vulgar” by Oscar Wilde, and “There are no short cuts to any place worth going” by Beverly Sills.

With neither Wilde nor Sills being legal practitioners themselves, it is uncanny how right they got it.

Studying Law can be an extremely noble and exciting career choice but it takes work. And lots of it. There are many years of studying involved, competency exams, practical vocational training, continuous long hours, high stress levels and sleepless nights. But on the plus side, you often get to go home with the assurance that you helped someone out. And this is the silver lining that keeps the profession going.

Do you have what it takes?

Make no mistake, the legal fraternity is competitive, from the get go.  If you are not 100% certain that this is the career for you, forget it. Turn around, start afresh and pick something else that won’t drain you of your blood, sweat and tears. To succeed in the legal profession, you have to be committed from day one. Go to classes (don’t skip because you partied too hard the night before), study hard (you need to ace exams from first year if you are going to stand out from the crowd), take on vacation work, and prepare for the life you want. And that cannot be stressed enough – preparation, planning, commitment and sheer determination are key to making a success of your career in Law.

If this article has spooked you. Good. This is the rest of your life you are talking about – make the decision that is right for you.

If you are still undeterred, let’s go through the nitty gritty of what is actually involved.

 The recipe

According to section 26(1) of the Legal Practice Act 28 of 2014[1] (the “LPA”), there are three main ingredients required in order to be enrolled as a legal practitioner:

Ingredient one: satisfy all the requirements of an LLB degree or an equivalent law degree (section 26(1)(a) and (b));

Ingredient two: undergo all practical vocational training (“PVT”) requirements prescribed by the Minister (section 26(1)(c)); and

Ingredient three: pass the competency-based examination (section 26(1)(d).

Mix them all together and you should be able to serve your legal soufflé in no time – give or take a couple of years.

Let’s explore these ingredients…

 The degree

The minimal requirement according to Section 26(1) of the LPA is the completion of an LLB degree (from a university registered in South Africa) – specifically “a course of study of not less than four years; or a course of study of not less than five years if the LLB degree is preceded by a bachelor’s degree other than the LLB degree”.

Admission requirements for the Field of Law (at Wits) can be found here.

Simply put, the LLB can be achieved in one of three ways:

“A two-year LLB stream where students choose to first do a BA (Law) or a B Com (Law) which feeds into the LLB (5 years altogether);

A three-year LLB stream (for students who decide, after completing a first degree, to study law); and

A four-year LLB stream where students can start studying law directly from matric.”

All roads essentially lead to Rome.

Get extra credit

No, not a small assignment you hand in for a couple of extra marks. We are talking about Vacation Work – and this can be key to securing practical vocational training at one of the “Big Five” Law firms. Ideally, vacation work should be sought as early as possible. The “Big Five” firms however mostly offer vacation work to students in their second last year of LLB or as early as the end of your second year of studies (obviously this is not a hard and fast rule and law students should approach these firms as soon as possible). These jobs usually last for a week or two during the July or December holidays and will look great on your CV. The day-to-day practicality of working within a law firm will give you a good idea of what to expect when you enter the “real world”.

Practical Vocational Training

This is where the long hours start. In order to become an attorney, you will need to have undergone all practical vocational training requirements (previously known as articles of clerkship) as a candidate attorney.

Regulation 6 in terms of section 109(1) of the LPA sets out that a candidate attorney must serve under a PVT contract (refer to Schedule 2 of the LPA Rules for a form of the PVT Contract) for an uninterrupted period of 24 months with a person:

  1. practising for his or her own account;
  2. practising as a partner in a firm of attorneys;
  3. practising as a member of a juristic entity;
  4. practising as a state attorney;
  5. who has practised as a professional assistant in a firm of attorneys for a period of five years within the preceding six years;
  6. in the full time employ of, or who is a member of Legal Aid South Africa, established in terms of the Legal Aid South Africa Act, 2014 (Act No. 39 of 2014) or a legal aid institution which has been approved by the Council for the purpose of engaging candidate attorneys;
  7. any other institution approved by the Council for the purpose of engaging candidate attorneys (Regulation 6(5)).

For all intents and purposes, this person is referred to as your “Principal”.

Remember to hone your admin skills early by registering your contract of articles with the Legal Practice Council[2] within 2 months of starting. If you don’t, you will not be registered as a candidate attorney and the initial time spent slogging away in the trenches will not be recognized by the court when you apply to be admitted as an attorney. Some advice – even though the duty rests on your Principal to register the PVT contract, take the bull by the horns and contact the Legal Practice Council to find out exactly what you need to do.

Structured Course Work (“SCW”)

During the 24-month PVT contract, a candidate attorney must complete a programme of structured course work of not less than 150 notional hours, as prescribed in regulation 6(10). That course is the equivalent of the 5 week course presented by LEAD. If the course has not been completed satisfactorily within 36 months from the date of registration of the PVT contract, the candidate attorney will be required to repeat the course work programme.

SCW is a compulsory course in practical legal training that every prospective attorney has to complete before they can be admitted. The course aims to teach you vital practical legal skills and helps immensely in the preparation for your competency exams.

What if I don’t find articles?

This article started off by saying that the legal fraternity is competitive. We weren’t joking about that. Sometimes law students are unable to secure articles and are thus left with a feeling of hopelessness. But don’t fret – an LLB, B.Com, or BA law degree all offer a number of diverse career paths besides that of attorney. It may take a little “out the box” thinking but rest assured, law impacts almost every field directly or indirectly and many law graduates can combine their love of law with their other interests or passions and find something meaningful. A legal background is a good start for an emerging entrepreneur or consultant as all businesses have to comply with a plethora of regulations, and law and commerce regularly overlap.

Another option is to become an advocate, an expert in the art of presenting and arguing cases in court. You have two options here – either a “traditional” advocate in the sense that you would be restricted to taking briefs (instructions) from attorneys, or alternatively under the LPA, a new type of advocate is provided for – one  practicing with a fidelity fund certificate (Rules made under the authority of sections 85(1)(b), 87, 95(1), 95(3) and 109(2) of the LPA). Such an advocate can take instructions directly from the lay public without taking instruction from an attorney (a ‘trust Account Advocate[3]”). However, and according to Rule 33 of the LPA, a Trust Account Advocate would still be limited to the legal services which advocates were traditionally entitled to render before the commencement of the Act (Trust Account Advocates do not replace the role of an attorney).

Competency Based Examination

After all that is said and done, it is now time to face the music – the Competency Based Examinations (Rule 21 of the LPA). They are practice orientated and comprise of:

  1. the practice and procedure in the High Court and in courts established under the Magistrates’ Courts Act, 32 of 1944;
  2. the practice and procedure relating to the winding up and distribution of the estates of deceased persons;
  3. the practice, functions and duties of an attorney, including the ethical duties of an attorney; and
  4. a knowledge of accounting necessary for the keeping of accounting records referred to in section 87 of the Act, and compliance with accounting rules published by the Council from time to time.

Under the Attorneys Act, these examinations could only be written if you had served at least 6 months of articles, have a service contract at a law clinic, or if you had attended the PLT course full time for at least 6 months. Under the LPA, there is no specific indication of how long you will need to have undertaken your PVT or SCW in order to write the exams but at the time of publication of this article, we can only assume that the same principle applies under the LPA. To ease the stress of the situation, you can choose which ones you want to write and when. You do not have to write all four together (although many people do) and can instead write 2 exams in August of your first year of PVT and the next two in March of your second year of PVT. It is much of a muchness – whatever works for you – there is no right or wrong way to go about this, as long as it gets done. To find out more about these examinations click here.

Community Service

In terms of section 26(1)(c)(i) an applicant for admission as an attorney must have satisfied the requirements of community service, as contemplated in section 29, prescribed by the Minister and in terms of the Rules. No requirements for community service have as yet been prescribed, and therefore community service at the time of publication of this article is not yet a requirement for admission.

Legal practice management course

In terms of section 26(1)(c)(ii) a person wishing to be admitted as an attorney or as a trust account advocate must have completed a legal practice management course prescribed by the Minister. That course is for candidate legal practitioners only. Until the Minister has prescribed the requirements of the legal practice management course, the requirement to complete the course is not, as at the time of publication of this article, necessary for admission.

Getting admitted

Finally, after completing your practical vocational training, structured course work and competency exams you are entitled to be admitted as an attorney. This process requires you to launch a high court application, whilst simultaneously giving the Legal Practice Council notice of your application. A notice of motion together with an affidavit has to be issued and an advocate has to be briefed in order to move the application on the given date. Often it is an advocate who you have worked with throughout your articles.

As with all the other steps in this whole process (and whilst your law firm or legal clinic ideally takes care of it), we recommend that you play an active role in your admission and ensure your Principal undertakes this process as efficiently and as soon as possible. Remember to stay in regular contact with the Legal Practice Council in order to avoid unnecessary surprises should there be any amendments or additional requirements to your admission process. You will receive your admission certificate from your law firm or legal clinic a few months after your appearance – and it is an amazing feeling!

Now what?

An obvious starting point is your CV and cover letter. Your CV will be marketing you and it is extremely important to exert some effort to ensure that it correctly and adequately represents you to prospective employers. You have one chance to make a good first impression so avoid overdoing your experience or exaggerating your exposure. Keep your CV simple, straightforward and professional at all times. Ensure that you have done a spell check and have used correct grammar. Do not lose out on an opportunity because of mistakes that should have been avoided. If you need help, contact any recruitment agency who will gladly assist in this endeavour.

A daunting prospect following admission is potentially having to seek alternative employment. Not all candidate attorneys are kept on as professional assistants at their law firms and it is important not to panic. Many leaders of industry, commerce and politics have a legal background. As we said above, law impacts almost every field directly or indirectly and newly admitted attorneys often end up becoming in-house legal advisors at banks and other companies that require frequent legal expertise. Alternatively you could consider a career as a prosecutor where you act on behalf of the State against people accused of a variety of crimes.

Whatever road you choose, studying Law can be extremely rewarding and can open doors to a number of different career paths and industries. Keep an open mind and your wits about you and at the end of the day, once all is said and done, your legal degree and the experience gained from articles is something to be proud of – something that cannot be taken away. The quote from the book, ‘The Lawyer Myth” by Frank T Read and Rennard Strickland, is a great way to conclude:

At the most pragmatic level, lawyers are society’s professional problem solvers. Lawyers are called upon to make distinctions, to explain how and why cases or experiences are alike or different. Lawyers are expected to restore equilibrium, to be balancers. Every discipline, every profession, every job, and every calling has a cutting edge. At that cutting edge, lines are drawn. Lawyers and judges are society’s ultimate line drawers. On one side of the line, the conduct, action, or inaction is proper; on the other side of the line, it is not”.

And I think being an ultimate line-drawer in a profession which dates back to the ancient Greek and Roman empires, is something to be respected. Good Luck!

[1] The remaining chapters of the Legal Practice Act were implemented on 1 November 2018, thereby replacing the Attorneys Act 53 of 1979 in its entirety.
[2] Whereas previously you would register with the Law Society in which you are located, under the LPA the four Law Societies will be dissolved and replaced by nine Provincial Councils and these councils will fall under a new structure called the Legal Practice Council.
[3] Trust Account Advocate derives from the definition of Trust Account Practice in Section 1 of the LPA

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(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.)