Information about being a lawyer. The legal profession demystified - Solidariteit Wêreld LoopbaanSolidariteit Wêreld Loopbaan

Despite the fact that lawyers are often prey to poor quality of life due to the high intellectual and emotional demands of the job, it is still a highly sought after and prestigious profession. Legal law lawyer.

This is attested to by the robust growth in the number of legal professionals and law graduates in South Africa. For instance, the number of graduates at South African universities grew by nearly 100% between 2004 and 2012, from 1 972 to 3 810. The number of graduates at Wits grew from 143 to 418 during this period. At Unisa this figure more than doubled from 386 to 855 and at the Potchefstroom campus of the North-West University it rose sharply from 56 to 208.

These figures also correspond with the growth in the number of practising attorneys. Between 2003 and 2013 the number of registered attorneys at the Law Society of the Northern Provinces grew rapidly from 7 806 to 12 049. At the Cape Law Society it increased from 4 280 to 5 732 and from 724 to 1 068 at the Law Society of the Free State.

These figures are astounding and impressive, but what does “becoming and being a lawyer” actually entail?

It is difficult to analyse all the professions open to law graduates, although they are found in almost every sector of employment due to the pervasiveness of the law. Broadly speaking, four types of careers can be identified, namely attorneys, advocates, legal advisers and positions in the Department of Justice (government). Interestingly, all people whose livelihoods depend on practising law are called lawyers, whether they are judges, magistrates, advocates, attorneys or university lecturers.

The attorney is your first port of call when you have legal issues or seek legal advice. They are generalists in the sense that they have broad knowledge of a wide array of legal problems. They handle a diverse range of affairs for individuals, businesses, associations and corporations. These include work in the field of business and corporate law; civil and criminal litigation; property transactions; taxation; estate planning; and business as well as personal advice.

The attorneys’ admission examination, which is presented by the Law Society, must be successfully completed before admission.

Advocates are specialists in certain branches of the law and especially in the presentation of cases in court. Attorneys, after assessing the merits and demerits of a given case, decide whether or not to engage an advocate to take the case further.

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Although advocates used to be the only ones who could appear in court, attorneys now also have this right. Moreover, advocates give legal opinions and help with the drafting of legal documents.

They need to be included on the “roll” of advocates, may join one of the ten professional “Bars” and could, after fulfilling quite stringent requirements, take silk and become senior advocates.

Legal advisers are lawyers who work for the government, big companies and other organisations and provide legal services and advice to their employees. As opposed to attorneys and advocates, these advisers provide their services to the public at large rather than to a single employer and work in a corporate environment.

Jobs offered by the Department of Justice include family advocate, Master of the High Court, public prosecutor, state attorney and state law advisor.

The family advocate assists parties in divorce proceedings to reach agreement on disputed matters, such as custody, access and guardianship. A Master of the High Court is appointed for every provincial division of the High Court of South Africa and deals with, among others, the administration of estates of deceased persons, the supervision of trusts and the protection of minors.

A public prosecutor works for the National Director of Public Prosecutions and conducts prosecutions in criminal proceedings on behalf of the State. A prosecutor decides whether a person should be prosecuted and what the nature of the charges should be. They question witnesses in court, submit exhibits and examine witnesses for the defence.

State attorneys work on behalf of the state and perform as notaries, conveyancers or parliamentary agents. Examples include urgent applications regarding gambling and the granting of casino licenses, and litigation in cases involving corruption or probable corruption.

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State law advisors provide cost-effective legal services to the government in order to reduce government’s dependence on the private sector and to cut costs.

What are the academic and personal requirements?

In the past South African universities offered several degree courses, depending on which type of legal profession one wanted to enter. These have been abolished and replaced with a standard four-year LLB degree, which provides access to all legal professions.

Some universities – such as Wits and the University of Johannesburg – also offer alternative options to attain the LLB degree. Students who have already completed the three-year BA or BCom degree (majoring in law), are now able to obtain their LLB in two years. They could otherwise complete it in three years if they did not take legal subjects in their undergraduate studies.

Once the LLB has been completed, students can also attain masters (LLM) and doctoral (LLD) degrees or complete diplomas and certificates in specialised subjects such as tax.

The legal profession requires a special type of person with a broad range of softer and hard skills and exacts a high personal price. For instance, according to the General Council of the Bar of South Africa, an advocate has to be equipped with immense confidence and self-control, excellent verbal, written and listening skills, the ability to peruse voluminous documents and extract relevant facts and material, and must be willing to work long hours. The Law Society of South Africa adds honesty, decisiveness, objectivity, the ability to deal with pressure, problem-solving and a sense of fairness and justice to this list.

Herman Perry, litigant at Solidarity, agrees that these qualities are very important in the legal profession. “I have always been quite confrontational and as I got older my language proficiency improved and so did my ability to make sound arguments. An aptitude test also revealed that I was destined for the legal profession.”

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He says lawyers need to be able to handle pressure. “Whether dealing with your own clients or your opponents, it’s always a pressure cooker. You are constantly involved in multiple cases and the ability to do quick research is also essential. And notwithstanding all the lawyer jokes, it is a very ethical profession which places a high premium on integrity.”

He says a lawyer’s tasks include, but are not limited to, consulting and communicating with clients, drawing up court documents, negotiations and litigation.

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