What Directors expect from their juniors

Chairperson, Tim Fletcher and CDH Partner Njeri Wagacha speak to Graduate Programme Manager, Boipelo Mathodlana.

24 Apr 2023 19:18 Minutes Podcast

At a glance

  • Chairperson, Tim Fletcher and CDH Partner Njeri Wagacha speak to Graduate Programme Manager, Boipelo Mathodlana.
  • They highlight a few of their expectations which include the below amongst others:
    • Gain as much practical experience as possible to develop skills, understand expectations and the culture of the organisation.
    • Leaders must walk the talk by living the values that they expect from their juniors.
    • Ask relevant questions – during the interview stage and over the course of your training.
    • Add value to your team by focusing on the opportunities given to you.
What Directors expect from their juniors

What Directors expect from their juniors


What Directors expect from their juniors


00:00 00:00
Download MP3


Boipelo Mathodlana: Welcome to the CDH Conversations Podcast, Graduate Masters Edition. I am your resident host, Boipelo, the graduate program manager at CDH. In today's conversation, I'm very happy to introduce two of our directors, Tim Fletcher and Njeri Wagacha, as we delve into what it is that directors expect from their juniors.

As always, we remind you that the information that we share today might not guarantee you an exact fit for the roles you're applying for, but we hope that it will increase your chances for success.

Njeri and Tim, if you can kickstart with a brief introduction of who you are, your role in the firm, practice areas that you specialize in and even, when did you complete your trainership or articles of clerkship.

Njeri Wagacha: Thank you very much, Boipelo, for inviting me to this discussion. My name is Njeri. I'm a partner in the Kenya office of CDH, and I specialize in M&A, Private Equity and Employment Law. I do all of those three subject matters. I'm also co-head of the Industrials Sector for CDH. I did my articles in London, actually. I was a trainee in a firm called Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, and that's where I started my career. I was very lucky to be able to secure a traineeship in London and qualify as a solicitor in England before coming back to Kenya to work as a lawyer here. And so from that perspective, I've had two different experiences, one in London and then one in Kenya as well.

Tim Fletcher: I completed my articles of clerkship at Cliffe Dekker & Todd end of 1990. I was then away from the firm for approximately two years, and then came back. I'm currently a director in the Dispute Resolution practice area, and for the next three years I am the chairperson of the firm.

Boipelo Mathodlana: Great. In previous episodes, we focused on what students can do to distinguish themselves whilst they're in varsity and then had a follow up on what juniors in the firm can expect on a day-to-day basis. But I think it's equally important to understand what their seniors expect from them. So, Tim, I'll start with you.

How would you explain the role of a CA or a trainee, and what character traits do you think they should possess to succeed?

Tim Fletcher: Yeah, it's quite a complex question because a CA (candidate attorney) or trainee, is a contracted employee for a limited period. And so you have no guarantee of further employment.

So on the one hand, you're a bit anxious about impressing the firm that you're working for, but at the same time you need to focus on getting as much out of those two years training as you possibly can. So really you need to be a sponge for those two years. But at the same time, you need to work very hard and that should be enough to impress the firm sufficiently, to keep you on.

The character traits you need, obviously you need a serious work ethic. I think you need a sense of fun, a good sense of humor, so that you can actually get on with other people. You need, to a large extent, what I call nous or common sense. And you need to be bright, obviously. You don't need to be a genius and you don't need to be an an academic genius.

There's a whole lot of practical things that operate in a law firm. And that's why that common sense, I think is a very important character trait.

Boipelo Mathodlana: Completely agree with that. So we almost call that a street smart balanced out with academic.

Tim Fletcher: Absolutely.

Boipelo Mathodlana: Njeri, what challenges do you typically observe that CAs or trainees experience? And do you think there's been a material difference in those post-COVID?

Njeri Wagacha: I don't know if it's post-COVID or if it's a generational thing. For me, the challenges that I see is that trainees want to, because they're very eager to impress, and as Tim said, you are on a contract and you want to make sure that you're putting your best foot forward, I think there's a tendency to try and do too much.

So that could be in taking on too much work or in not necessarily following instructions, but doing what you think is best. Trying to show that you have some independent thinking. And then that could run you into problems because you are not necessarily doing what you're supposed to do. You are just trying to impress. So I think just listening to the instructions, making sure that what you're doing is actually what you're required to do.

And then asking questions. I don't see enough people asking questions or asking relevant questions so that they can make sure that what they're producing adds value to the client that they're representing. Because at the end of the day, what you're supposed to be demonstrating is an ability to add value to the work that the firm is doing so that they can have an incentive to keep you on, to continue adding value to the firm. And so that's where I think the pitfalls are.

Boipelo Mathodlana: That's a good point there around adding value. But maybe, I think coming back to that, are there any pet peeves that you've experienced with juniors or would you say it's around asking relevant questions? And is there then a difference between the pet peeves that you've experienced when you look at a candidate in recruitment stage, for example, during the interviews or an internship or vacation work versus once they actually join and practice?

Njeri Wagacha: I think when you are at the interview stage and you are looking to join a particular firm to do your traineeship at that firm, then you should understand by the time that you come to the interview, who the firm is. Know who you're, first of all, going to face. So ask who is going to be in the interview so that you can do some research on them.

Do some research on the firm. Understand the kind of practice areas that they specialize in. So if you're coming to do an interview and you want, or you think that you want to do litigation when you finish and you are now faced with an interview at a corporate firm or a largely corporate firm, then you're not really in the right place and the interviewers will know that, because your answers will not demonstrate an awareness of the area of law that you want to practice in. So I think it's very key to do your background research, to understand where you are coming to interview, and then put your best foot forward at the interview stage.

Boipelo Mathodlana: Good, practical, very practical advice there. Tim, coming back to you, how has hybrid working affected your team management style?

I think you have quite a large team. Do you manage your CAs directly or do you prefer to do so through an associate? And then following up to that, how do you oversee their training? Do you personally monitor their workload or expect them to manage their capacity and then come back to you if they require guidance?

Tim Fletcher: I don't think that hybrid working has affected my team management style, but it certainly affected the practicalities of team management because your team used to be all sitting around in the same area, in the same set of offices, and you would just walk outside and go and speak to people in their office.

Now, a lot of the time you're doing that over a platform like Teams or sometimes informal platforms like WhatsApp, and so those things have changed. But the management style in my team certainly is very hands-on, as far as time permits. I mean, one of the challenges that I have in being chairperson is that I'm not as available as I used to be. But the style, the hands-on style goes right the way through the team.

Then you asked, if I prefer to manage through an associate; it depends. It depends on the individual. It depends on whichever matters they're working on. So if I have a very large matter where, e.g. it's me plus another partner, plus an associate, it may well happen that the CA in that matter gets largely supervised by the associate or the other partner. But it's not that I will be completely remote. There may be matters where I'm working directly with the CA on a matter, and then I'm kind of in their face, and they're getting direct responses on a matter. So it depends on the matters, and it depends on the associate. It depends on the CA. If I see that a CA is struggling, I might actually take some time to work with that CA to try and get them on track.

Then you asked me how I oversee the training. Again, it depends from person to person. I don't have a spreadsheet of who's working on what, and I do expect all of the people in my team to behave like professionals. And if you're a candidate attorney and you're struggling with your workload on the one hand, or you don't have enough work on the other hand, I would expect you to be raising that.

One of the challenges of working in a large team is that you may have different instructions from different partners, from senior associates, from junior associates, and you don't really know how to prioritize.

The mistake that a lot of candidates make is that they prioritize immediately according to the seniority of the person, and that's not necessarily the right way to go about it.

The instruction that I've given to the candidate attorney may be something that is only due in three weeks time, and it's really not that important, whereas the instruction that's been given to the candidate attorney by a junior associate is in a huge matter which needs their attention immediately.

And that's the kind of guidance that they would need when they've got multiple tasks. From either the associates or the partners, and they need to ask questions. So there's a lot of agency given to the candidate attorneys in my team, but at the same time, there's a lot of opportunity for them to ask questions if they feel that they don't know what the priorities are, or if they're feeling swamped on the one hand or neglected on the other.

Boipelo Mathodlana: Those are good points there, and I think it leads into my next one. Clearly you're dealing with a lot of people in Teams. CDH is spread out across different regions. We have a diverse cohort of people working in the firm. And this is to any one of you: What is your approach to managing a diverse team and how do you ensure that each member learns to be sensitive to, inclusive of, and even appreciative of the differences of the people in their team?

Njeri Wagacha: Having worked in different jurisdictions, I know how it is to be other in a firm. And I know how it is to feel different. And I think the emphasis for us is on, first of all, making sure that we're looking after the welfare of the people in the team that we're working with. Yeah. So that's not just from a professional perspective, but also asking, inquiring about them themselves as people, because we work with people and that's important.

And then the second thing is on emphasizing on getting the experience of the work. Because at the end of the day, your work will speak for itself and not yourself. People don't see you, necessarily. They see the work that you produce. And so it's important for you to be aware that the work must speak for itself, and the work is the work that the client will appreciate, and will make sure distinguishes us as a firm and you as an individual by you having done that piece of work.

Boipelo Mathodlana: On work, Njeri, my passion lies with developing young talent, and they're often accused of being unable to take on criticism as part of their development. But as a partner, how do you provide feedback and keep each other accountable as a team or as individuals in a team? And what's your approach to supporting their professional development goals?

Njeri Wagacha: There are various ways. And first of all, there isn't a one-size-fits-all for everyone because people take criticism or feedback differently. And so, what I try to focus on is a list of deliverables or things that, by the time that you finish in my team, you could have possibly achieved, so that you are an all-round corporate lawyer. And so from the start, I have a checklist that we work through to make sure that you're getting all of the experiences that you can, in terms of corporate work.

And so we have feedback sessions every month. To go through the list and see the different types of work that was done, the matters that were handled, and then whether or not the expectations were met for each of those pieces of work. And having the discussion and an open discussion, make sure that we can catch where there are weaknesses, for example, technical weaknesses, or with whether it's an issue of timing and delivery. And then making sure that we can work on those for the next month so that by the time that you finish in the rotation, you've gotten the necessary experience, but also the feedback to understand where you can improve for your next seat.

Tim Fletcher: Can I just jump in because I've got a comment on both of the previous questions and I think that it's fundamentally important as a leader to understand that;

Your juniors are going to mimic your behavior, and so you cannot be preaching one thing and behaving differently, because whatever you preach will be ignored and whatever you do will be followed.

So if you want your juniors to be in the office, you must be in the office. If you want your juniors to perform on time, you must be on time. If you want people to arrive at meetings at one o'clock when the meeting starts, then you must be there at one o'clock when the meeting starts. It's too often amongst leaders, that they think, "I'm now the leader so I can take liberties." And then they get upset when their juniors follow their example. And that applies exactly the same to the sensitivity, inclusiveness, appreciativeness that you apply to your juniors.

If you are offhand with your juniors, your juniors are going to be offhand with their juniors, and that is going to be the culture of the organisation.

Boipelo Mathodlana: Tim, thank you for that because my question to you, and especially as chairperson, is how do you uphold the company culture and how do you encourage others to do the same?

Tim Fletcher: Well, I try very hard to adhere to the values. You'll see that I'm at work every day. You'll see that I go to lunch every day. You'll see that when we have a drinks evening, particularly enjoyed by the juniors, they may not necessarily want to speak to me because I'm much older than them, but I make sure that I show my face there. We have several offices and although I've only been to Nairobi once, it's on my agenda to come more often this year, and I have been to Cape Town almost every month since I became chairperson. And I think that that is important, that the leadership is seen, that the leadership is available and that the leadership behaves in the way that we want the rest of the firm to behave.

Boipelo Mathodlana: Wonderful advice so far. So I'm gonna close off by asking each one of you for an advice for a candidate that would like to secure articles or training at a top-tier law firm such as ours. Are they doomed if they aren't signed as a fresh graduate? And what else can they do to distinguish themselves, even if they're applying for an associate role?

Tim Fletcher: The most important thing is to get into the Vac Programmes at the big law firms, if you can. In my experience, that's where most people who get signed to big law firms get signed from. It also gives you an idea of what it would be like working in a top-tier law firm.

If you aren't signed as a fresh graduate, you're not doomed. There are lots of other law firms, and even if you end up practicing your whole career in a small law firm, it's not the worst thing in the world. You may not get paid as much, but you might get paid as much. But one of the challenges of being in a large law firm is that we act for large clients on large matters. It's then very difficult to give substantial responsibility to juniors, and you only start getting that substantial responsibility as you get more senior.

I did work for a small law firm after I'd done my articles, and one of the things that was great in that law firm is that I got handed lots of matters that I dealt with on my own. I ran my own trials. I made my own decisions on the matter. And that taught me a lot about how to manage a practice.

That's not to say you won't get the same experience or knowledge, but it'll be different experience or knowledge. All I'm saying is, big law firms aren't necessarily the be-all and end-all. But again, coming back to the first point:

If you want to get into a big law firm, get into the Vac Programme as quickly as possible.

And I think, Boipelo, you can start applying from your second year of your law studies. Am I right?

Boipelo Mathodlana: That is correct, Tim.

Njeri Wagacha: On my end, I would say that if you can't get a Vac Scheme, because Vac Schemes are very competitive, and even when I was in London I didn't get a Vac Scheme before I got a training contract.

But I did get a lot of work experience in offices in different businesses, and I was a receptionist, I did various work, to understand the corporate world, so that when I was at the interview stage, I understood what it was like to work in an office, perhaps not the technical side, but definitely on e.g. knowing how to use Word, knowing how to talk on the telephone, knowing how to use Excel. All of the different things that you will come across in your practice and if you are a step ahead of everyone, if you already know what the working environment looks like and you are mature enough to handle it, that also gets you very far. Not just, specifically working in a legal environment.

Boipelo Mathodlana: Wonderful. I've thoroughly enjoyed this conversation. Time willing, I wish that we could keep it going, but you are both very busy and you have teams and clients that are waiting for your input, so thank you for the time. That does bring us to the end of today's conversation of Graduate Matters, really insightful wealth of wisdom and experience.

For me, my key takeaways, first one is: candidates, if you can get into Vac or internships or just generally gaining any work experience as soon as you can. Ideally in the corporate law firms or whatever type of law firms that you are interested in, so that you can get a sense of the culture as well as the expectations of the roles that you're applying for.

As a leader, you must walk the talk. Lift the values and the behavior that you expect from your juniors. And finally, irrespective of your role, ask questions, whether you're in interview stage, whether you're a candidate or a trainee, or an associate. Ask questions. Ask relevant questions, timeously. Njeri and Tim again, thank you.

And to our listeners, if you have questions that you would like for us to cover on the Graduate Matters podcast, you can send us an email at gradteam@cdhlegal.com and remember that you are talented and should join a law firm where talented people thrive.

Njeri Wagacha: Thanks so much, Boipelo.

Tim Fletcher: Thanks, Boipelo. Thanks, Njeri.

The information and material published on this website is provided for general purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. We make every effort to ensure that the content is updated regularly and to offer the most current and accurate information. Please consult one of our lawyers on any specific legal problem or matter. We accept no responsibility for any loss or damage, whether direct or consequential, which may arise from reliance on the information contained in these pages. Please refer to our full terms and conditions. Copyright © 2024 Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr. All rights reserved. For permission to reproduce an article or publication, please contact us cliffedekkerhofmeyr@cdhlegal.com.