Succeeding in your role as a candidate attorney
24 Jan 2017
The duties of a Candidate Attorney will make or break you
It’s your first day at work. You’ve heard that the duties of the article clerk are to perform endless paginations; spend hours communicating with the photocopy machine; and sweating the day away at a magistrate’s court just to ask the judge to postpone your matter. You’ve also heard tales of books being hurled across a room at a wide-eyed candidate attorney. Or red-faced old men screaming profanities and slamming down the phone on an opponent. And most of them are true.
But fear not. With the right advice you will get through it all. Your duties as a candidate attorney can be very fulfilling, and there will be many positive tasks and outcomes to keep you going. Like helping your principal to prepare a tender for a billion Rand construction project. Or winning a custody case in the best interests of the child. Or putting a criminal behind bars. Or telling your boss that he or she is wrong and being right (but don’t do that too often.) And obviously, receiving a salary at the end of the month.
Keep in mind that not all law firms have the same work ethics and strategies. Nor will they demand the same roles from their minions. Some principals are friendly, some are not. Some firms will make you work a 12 hour day, others 9. In some you will be treated like a liability, and in others an asset. Finding a law firm and a principal who are right for you is a matter of luck, and a bit of shopping around if you can afford that luxury. Just be aware that finding articles can be very difficult, so don’t play too hard to get.
Nevertheless, the start of your career will most probably be fraught with sweat, tears, coffee and anxiety. And if you want to succeed in this highly competitive world of pro-law, you have to man up (or woman up), suit up, perfect the Windsor knot, and most importantly, learn how to ask a lot of questions – even at the risk of looking like a tool.
The legal environment is stressful
Law is an extremely stressful career. Don’t be surprised when you learn that your principal is impatient, anxious, and grumpy. Not only do attorneys have to deal with the complex legal problems of their clients all day, but maintaining balance in their personal lives might present its own set of challenges. If you want to stay sane and not turn too bitter, you have to learn to be patient, grow a thick skin and don’t take things too personally. If you believe that your boss has crossed the line, stand your ground and let them know.
It is not uncommon to stay up late into the night preparing an urgent matter. During that time you might ask yourself “why did I do this to myself?” The truth is most probably “for the money”. And the money will come if you work hard, stay focused, and ask a lot of (work related) questions.
Ask a lot of questions
As a newbie candidate attorney, it’s ok to make mistakes (just try not to make them more than once). Your supervisors’ commitments are to instruct you, check your work, correct it, and teach you along the way. If they don’t dedicate time to mentor you, it’s your duty to complain and demand their attention.
Law by its very nature is an intricate science with numerous variables and several ways to skin the cat. The quickest way to learn anything is to ask questions. Ask your boss to explain your tasks to you until you understand the problem at hand without any ambiguity. Ask them to refer you to case law, to send you a template and to explain the legal terminology. Your supervisors have years of experience and possess a wealth of transferable knowledge. One of the keys to being a great lawyer is to remain inquisitive, question everything and understand the issues down to the finest details. One wrong word in a pleading or a contract could have monumental affects. And remember, when used correctly, google can be extremely useful.
Take initiative and be a team player
If you find yourself twiddling your thumbs and browsing facebook after completing a mammoth photocopying task, take initiative. Approach one of the attorneys at your firm and ask if you can help them with anything. Show interest in your work and their work. They will appreciate your determination to make yourself useful, and your combined efforts will ultimately bring success to your firm.
It is equally important to build good relationships with your colleagues. Your initiative will encourage them to provide you with more interesting and challenging tasks. When the time is ripe, they will evaluate your performance and either send you back to the copy machines, or give your salary a nice little bump.
Find your niche
Law is a very diverse profession with numerous fields of specialisation. Rather than becoming good at many things, become the best at a few interrelated fields of practice. After several years at the law firm, you should be drawn to an area of law which excites you, and which you believe has good potential as a long term career choice. Taking time to specialise in a limited number of legal fields could greatly increase your marketability to law firms or corporations requiring in-house attorneys. Experts who have mastered 3 or 4 niche fields of law such as energy, construction and project finance can build strong reputations and charge fees upwards of R4000 per hour.
To become truly successful, those lawyers never stop being inquisitive, asking questions, and understanding their client’s needs and operations down to the finest details.
See also: Is a candidate attorney an employee?(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.)