Should I study to become a lawyer in South Africa?

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19 Mar 2011

Law can be an exciting and rewarding career, but one that requires a lot of commitment and dedication. So before you get stuck in, we suggest that you find out as much as possible about the advantages and disadvantages of becoming a lawyer. Only do it if it feels like a calling. Once you decide that law is for you, you need to make a firm commitment. It is a competitive field and one that requires a sustained effort in order to reap the rewards of a fulfilling career and a high salary.

How long does it take to study law

Studying law takes a lot of hard work and dedication. In South Africa, proficiency in the English language is extremely important as students are required to study a multitude of technical legal books and hundreds of cases in English. The standard requirement before one can practice as a lawyer is completing an LLB degree which takes 4 years. Alternatively, some students choose to first study a BCom or BA which takes 3 years and then study another 2 years to complete their LLB. Universities such as WITS no longer offer a straight LLB but require students to first study a BCom or BA degree and only offer LLB as a postgraduate degree. Click here for more information.

By studying a BCom prior to an LLB, a prospective lawyer gains valuable information about business and accounting and the general way in which the markets and the economy work. This additional knowledge might prove incredibly beneficial when applying for articles at various law firms and will come in handy in practice.

What does a lawyer do?

There are two kinds of lawyers in South Africa, attorneys and advocates. Attorney works in law firms, write contracts and meet with clients, while advocate are the ones that wear a robe and stand up to argue in front of a judge. When someone has a legal problem, they approach an attorney, who is expected to have a good working knowledge of the relevant legal issue at hand. When the matter goes to court the attorney has to “brief” an advocate who, based on the information and instruction given to him by the attorney, argues the matter in court.


Advocates are self employed but are generally members of a “bar council” which is a body that helps to oversee and guide the profession. They are primarily experts in the art of presenting and arguing cases in court. This requires a mastery of law and the facts of the case. Good judgment and the ability to present a case clearly and coherently are an absolute must. Each case requires good preparation and organization.

Advocates also give legal opinions and help with the drafting of legal documents, most commonly relating to their field of specialisation, be it commercial, family, tax law, or otherwise. Once advocates have reached a particular level of experience, they are entitled to apply to the President for appointment as “senior counsel”. Judges of the High Court are often appointed form the ranks of senior counsel. Can you see yourself as a judge one day? Why not? Click here to find out how to become an advocate.


Like advocates, attorneys can now also appear in the higher courts. In practice however, court appearance is still usually handled by advocates. The attorney is the person with whom you first make contact when you seek legal advice. The service that he or she supplies needs to be broad enough to cover a wide field of legal problems. Only once the matter proceeds to court does it get handed over to an advocate. Before then, the attorney must define the legal issues and attempt to seek alternative ways to resolve the dispute while protecting the interest of his or her client.

Unlike advocates who practice alone, attorneys often form professional companies and firms, and practice in partnership with each other. Many attorneys consider themselves to be general practitioners. However, as a result of the increasing complexity of life, the trend is towards specialization and the mastery of specific fields of law. Click here to find out how to become an attorney.

How much money do lawyers make?

Once you have successfully completed your BCom/BA and/or LLB, you will have to commence the next part of your career as an attorney or advocate.

Attorney Salary

Doing your law articles as a candidate attorney takes 2 years in total at a law firm, or 6 months at the LEAD law school and 1 year at a law firm. Depending on which firm you get accepted into, the starting salaries can range from as low as R5000 per month to as high as R25 000 per month. Through hard work, long and stressful hours, and valuable experience, your salary could reach upwards of R100 000 per month if you make partner or associate at a successful firm, or start your own successful practice.

Advocate Salary

Most potential lawyers who choose to do their one year of pupilage do no receive a monthly salary. Once they qualify as advocates they are assigned the title of junior advocate, and it is up to them to market themselves, find clients and build their reputations. Some top advocates in South Africa charge up to R45 000 per day! But it takes many years of experience and a massive reputation to reach that level of success.

Other Options

A good knowledge of the law will prove useful in almost any career you might choose. Many leaders of industry, commerce and politics have a legal background. Law graduates often end up becoming in-house legal advisors at banks and other companies that require frequent legal expertise. Those that do not enjoy the pressures of being a lawyer may find that this path is less taxing because the stressful litigation usually gets outsourced to law firms.

Another option for law graduates is to become a prosecutor. A prosecutor is the lawyer that acts on behalf of the government against people accused of a crime. Prosecutors get exposure to a wide variety of legal situations. This provides an excellent learning experience and an interesting career. Click here to find out more about the Functions and differences between State Attorneys, State Advocates and Prosecutors.

This may also interest you: 10 steps to becoming an attorney in South Africa

(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