The legal profession has been held in high esteem for centuries. Consequently, it's not surprising that many young people in South Africa, and around the world, still choose law as their career path. Every year there is an influx of law graduates into the legal field.

However, with the slowing of the economy and the saturated job market in South Africa, an increasing number of law graduates find themselves struggling to find employment or even a defined career path after they graduate.

I experienced these challenges as a young graduate, but I was fortunate enough to reach my career goal. A driving factor behind my success was that I knew, unequivocally, that I wanted to be an attorney. Using this as a starting point, I could easily determine the steps I would need to take. Unfortunately, many of my former classmates remain in an uncertain state of limbo, still figuring out if "lawyering" is for them.

Law graduates often feel that their career path is rigid, and search for employment under the assumption that they are confined to the legal profession.

This mind-set usually leads young people to complete their articles of clerkship or pupillage and become practising attorneys/advocates but realise soon thereafter that legal practice is not for them. Unfortunately, university and practice are worlds apart, and graduates often find that their expectations exceed reality. Sometimes they drop out of the profession feeling disheartened and disengaged but the dream does not always have to begin and end with being an attorney or an advocate.

The LLB, BCom, and BA law degrees all offer a number of diverse and fulfilling career paths besides those of advocate or attorney. Surprisingly, many university students are unaware of the power of their law degrees. Law impacts almost every field directly or indirectly and many graduates can combine their love of law with their passions or hobbies. A good practical example is the emerging Fintech market that combines technology, finance and, yes you guessed it, law. The emergence of cryptocurrency, Bitcoin, blockchain etc, and the need to regulate these contemporary markets, has created a demand for individuals who possess both legal and technological knowledge. Graduates who are skilled in both these areas are in high demand in the job market.

A legal background is a good start for an emerging entrepreneur, as law and commerce often overlap. Many successful CEOs started their careers with a law degree. Brian Moynihan, Chairman and CEO of Bank of America, is but one example; he is a leader of more than 200 000 employees and a company with a market cap of over US$300 billion. In the South African market, emerging businesses have to comply with a raft of legislation in order to operate successfully, and law graduates will find their skills very beneficial if they choose to start their own business.

Moreover, a number of African countries have recently seen an influx of foreign investment in respect of developmental projects relating to infrastructure and natural resources, such as oil and gas. These development projects present project financing and project management career opportunities. Project financing and project management have always been fields that require individuals with a diverse skill set, and a law degree can be a foothold in project finance or as a project manager.

Human Resources (HR) and Public Relations (PR) are other fields that are managers and PR agents often face legal issues on a daily basis; having a legal background can prove invaluable and provide a different approach or perspective.

Another field that has seen an inflow of law graduates in recent years is journalism. A number of graduates take up writing as legal analysts, and the field of legal journalism has grown substantially. If journalism doesn't interest you then maybe a career in politics does. As South Africa's political landscape evolves, law graduates may consider the opportunity of joining the political arena. Many revered politicians are law graduates, including the late Nelson Mandela. A law degree is a good stepping stone to a political career.

Consultancy is another career path that allows law graduates to combine law and a field that they are passionate about into a successful career. South Africa's dynamic business landscape has created a demand for consultants including finance; marketing; business; IT and medical. Consultants offer expertise and advice to clients in their fields of experience and knowledge. The legal aspects of any field will be of importance and a law degree will be advantageous to graduates who have the ability to sell their skill set.

As a law graduate you might have enjoyed studying law but you may not necessarily enjoy practising law; academia, which includes lecturing, teaching and research, could prove the ideal career path. However, if lecturing and teaching is not for you, consider a career in legal research. Legal researchers, among other things, explore legal problems looking for innovative legal solutions, verify the law and analyse cases and statutes. They are sometimes appointed by government bodies to research further improvement of existing legislation.

As previously mentioned, being a law graduate does not stop you from entering other fields. Many law graduates choose to develop their knowledge and skills in the law around their particular field of interest and become inhouse legal advisers for key players in that particular field. For example, a law graduate with an interest in mining can develop their mining law experience and knowledge and then seek employment as an in-house legal adviser with a mining company.

There are many professions and career paths outside of law that are open to law graduates. Law evolves daily and with these changes, new career opportunities emerge.

In line with the evolution of law, South Africa has implemented the Legal Practice Act (28 of 2014), which came into force on 1 February, and introduces a new type of legal practitioner, an advocate who practises with a fidelity fund certificate (Rules made under the authority of sections 95(1), 95(3) and 109(2) of the Legal Practice Act (28 of 2014) (as amended) – Gen N 401/2018 – Part V, Professional Practice Rule; Rule 17.6.7 and Rule 25.1.3 and section 85(1)(b) and section 87 of the Act). This means that the general public no longer needs to engage the services of an attorney in order to obtain the services of an advocate. An advocate who intends to practise with a fidelity fund certificate may receive instructions directly from the man in the street and does not have to be briefed by an attorney.

Besides having to comply with the existing requirements of pupillage, (which under the new act falls under practical vocational training), a law graduate will have to pass:

  • the competency-based examinations or assessments, which include:
    • practise and procedure in the high court and in courts established under the Magistrates' Courts Act (32 of 1944);
    • practice, functions and ethical duties of an advocate; and
    • a knowledge of accounting necessary for keeping accounting records and compliance with accounting rules (Rules made under the authority of sections 95(1), 95(3) and 109(2) of the Legal Practice Act, 28 of 2014 (as amended) – Gen N 401/2018 – PART VI, Education and Training, Section 21 Competency-based examinations or assessments, section 95(1)(n) read with section 26(1)(d), (2) and (3) of the Act, and specifically Rules 21.5.1 to 21.5.3) commonly referred to as book keeping (in the case of an advocate intending to practise as a legal practitioner conducting a trust account practice).
  • a legal practice management course (Rules made under the authority of sections 95(1), 95(3) and 109(2) of the Legal Practice Act – Gen N 401/2018 – Part V, Professional Practice Rule; Rule 27, Legal practice management course, section 95(1)(zL) read with section 85(1)(b) of the Act) approved by the South African Legal Practice Council, the new national regulatory body for legal practitioners which replaces the Law Society (Chapter 2, South African Legal Practice Council, Part 1, Establishment, powers and functions of South African Legal Practice Council, section 4 Establishment of Council, section 5 Objects of Council, section 6 Powers and functions of Council and section 7 Composition of Council of the Legal Practice Act) before making their application to be an advocate with a fidelity fund certificate.

Law graduates who comply with the mandatory practical vocational training, which includes community services under supervision of a legal practitioner (a practising advocate) (Rules made under the authority of sections 95(1), 95(3) and 109(2) of the Legal Practice Act – Gen N 401/2018 – Rule 17.6.4), passing the competency-based examinations and completing the legal practice management course, must apply to a high court to practise and to be authorised to be enrolled as a legal practitioner (section 24, Admission and enrolment, and section 30,3 Enrolment with Council, specifically 30(1)(a) and 30(b)(iii) of the Legal Practice Act – Gen N 401/2018) and PART V, Professional Practice Rule, Rule 17, Application for admission and enrolment as legal practitioners read together with section 95(1)(k) and (t) read with sections 24(2)(d), 30(1)(a) and 30(b)(iii)) and must simultaneously lodge an application with the Council specifying that they are enrolling as an advocate practising with a fidelity fund certificate.

Once admitted, the advocate will have to operate a trust account, comply with the obligations of a legal practitioner relating to handling of trust monies, apply for a fidelity fund certificate, contribute towards the fund, keep accounting records and possess the requisite knowledge of accounting (Chapter 7, Handling of trust monies, section 84 Obligations of legal practitioner relating to handling of trust monies; section 85 Application for and issue of Fidelity Fund certificates, section 86 Trust accounts, section 87 Accounting and section 88 Trust money and trust property of trust account practice, of the Legal Practice Act).

In terms of the Act, law graduates who want to follow the formal legal route will now have a choice between three careers. If these options don't appeal to you, your law degree still opens up a world of possibility.