Advice to law students

30 Jul 2012 6 min read Article

Law graduates today face increasingly great difficulty in securing articles of clerkship with a law firm.  Hundreds of law graduates clamour for positions every year at the large commercial law firms. Many perceive these firms as the most desirable employers of choice from a remuneration and future-prospects perspective.  The hard truth, however, is that the vast majority of applicants will not find articles at any of the handful of large law firms and some will not be able to get articles following the year they graduate from university at all.  While those graduates should not be discouraged from applying at all to firms that may be perceived to be very difficult to get into, aspiring attorneys should consider the following:

  • The average age of a law graduate looking to start articles is around twenty two, if the graduate has an undergraduate degree in law, and normally twenty three if the graduate studied a Bachelor of Commerce or Arts prior to reading a postgraduate LLB.  This effectively means that most graduates will have career spans of at least forty or more years before facing retirement. While it certainly is prudent to become economically active as soon as possible, it is by no means a disaster if one takes an additional year or two to further one's educational, professional profile or life experience prior to starting articles;
  • More applicants to large law firms now apply with higher diplomas and master’s degrees in law. This may give them a competitive edge when compared to applicants who have not obtained those additional qualifications.  If a graduate is unable to secure articles at a firm of choice simply because of a lack of space on that firm's part, it is often a good tactic to try and agree with that firm that the applicant will undertake to start serving articles a year or two later, after having obtained a postgraduate degree or diploma; 
  • Another option which is worth considering is taking up a position as a judge's clerk.  While the option of becoming a clerk at the Constitutional Court becomes ever increasingly popular and desirable amongst law graduates, an aspiring legal practitioner could gain wonderful experience from being a judge's clerk at either the High Court or the Labour Court. Days spent observing qualified practitioners engaged in litigation and understanding the judicial process from an insider point of view can only place the applicant in very good stead for a future career in the law, even if the applicant concerned does not necessarily intend to practice in a litigation sphere.  Such credentials could also, in many cases, confer an advantage on an applicant looking for articles;
  • Meaningful work experience in adjacent fields to the law could also be a big plus for the applicant who is unable to secure articles of his/her firm of choice or at all.  Working as paralegals at overseas law firms, local law firms or taking on junior or clerical legal advisor positions where an academic qualification is more important than a professional one, could also place applicants in a position where they are seen as more desirable by the firms at which they want to do articles; and
  • Law graduates would also do very well to remember that while the firm at which one undertakes articles of clerkship is certainly an important consideration (although very few graduates have the luxury of a choice!), it should be understood that there are many fine firms operating under the leadership of highly qualified and well-skilled attorneys who can offer a rewarding entry into the profession.  Some of these firms are large, some are medium sized and some are small. What matters is the quality of the vocational training the candidate will receive, not the size of the firm. Quite apart from anything else, qualified attorneys make lateral moves, between firms, all the time. Attorneys can (and do) move from small firms to larger firms and vice versa.

With all of that said, there is a balance to be struck between being realistic and understanding the importance of finding entry into the profession and not settling for something which does not provide a level of professional and personal fulfilment.  At the best of times, a career in the law is extremely demanding.  It is thus crucial that applicants find a firm that best suits their goals, needs and personality if they want to have the best prospect of succeeding.

Facilitating entry into the profession will remain a challenge for some time for those bodies that govern the legal profession and for Government itself.  Until then, graduates still at university are well advised to study hard, obtain good marks and be smart about the way they apply for articles.  Undertaking vacation work, preparing one's curriculum vitae in the correct way, learning and understanding about the interview process and practicing ahead of interviews are all very important facets of applying for a career in the law.  Most of all, law graduates should not underestimate the vast levels of competition they face when seeking employment in the formal profession.  Graduates tend to think only of their immediate classmates at their particular university, but should understand that law firms receive applications from all over the country and are usually keen to cast their net widely.  Competition is very fierce and every applicant should put his/her best foot forward and compete as best they can for the relatively few positions available.

In other words: graduates are advised to be persistent, be patient and market themselves as best they can, while accepting that the firm at which they may undertake articles of clerkship is by no means determinative of whether they will "make it" as attorneys or not. The majority of candidates who serve articles at large law firms end up leaving before they become partners in those firms. Some for other firms, some for the corporate world and some for a life away from law. Firms take on qualified attorneys from other firms, and some of the best and most successful attorneys in the market have never worked in large firms. Opportunities to enter the formal profession are scarce and graduates must consider all available options, but articles of clerkship are just the beginning and certainly not the end. The end reached by any lawyer is determined by him or herself.

Prospective applicants should be less concerned with the size of the law firm and focus on what the law firm can offer in terms of training, experience and skills development instead.  The significance of articles as the foundation on which a candidate is able to build his/her career should not be underestimated.  The shortcomings of tertiary education for law graduates and the renewed emphasis on skills development and training make it essential for prospective candidate attorneys, now more than ever before, to make an informed decision when it comes to articles.  Articles can simply no longer be viewed as a means to an end – it is a journey during which a candidate attorney should receive sufficient exposure, training, guidance, support and opportunity for skills development so as to ultimately be able to cope with the demands of the profession and to succeed as an attorney.  Whilst the number of law students applying for articles may be on the increase, making it more difficult to secure articles, it is vital for prospective candidate attorneys to choose an environment which will enable them to make the most of their articles -  an environment which values training, skills development, mentorship, career development and professional support to its lawyers. 

Not having done articles of clerkship at one of the big firms does not mean that a person can never work at any of the large law firms.  Large law firms, from time to time,  recruit external candidates for associate and senior associate positions.  The deciding factor is not where a candidate served articles but rather his/her level of experience, ability, skills and training.


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