Career Insights

Career Insights Series: Cohen on Law

Dell Young Leaders alum Cohen

The Dell Young Leaders programme prepares graduates to step into leadership positions in the world of work, every day. Alum Cohen — a 2016 University of Pretoria graduate — is now an associate in the corporate and commercial litigation and alternative dispute resolution department in one of South Africa’s leading law firms. Below, Cohen shares about what his day-to-day job entails and gives advice to other university students pursuing law.

What does a day in your life look like?

I practice in commercial litigation and much of my work consists of contractual disputes between parties. I am often in court trying to resolve these disputes. My clients are from various industries including tax, construction, tech, and energy, so I am not bound to one thing. You’ll often find clients from an array of industries, because the law is the law and it stays the same. That’s why they’re coming to you for your help. I like that the work is never boring and I get to work with and experience lots of people.

A day in my life consists of drafting pleadings and particulars of claims. These are the founding documents for court, but my day also includes preparing legal opinions and providing strategic advice to clients. Something they don’t teach in university is that being a practicing attorney, not just a candidate attorney, is very administrative. You must have very good organisational skills. A large part of our work consists of arranging meetings and compiling files and documents for the court. As much as you must be good at the law and very smart in those respects, it benefits you to be very organised and start to practice these skills. A lot can go wrong if a court date isn’t diarised properly or if planning is off. This is a big part of a day in the life of a lawyer.

Many students are overwhelmed by what constitutes law. What would you tell law students who are anxious about finding a specialization?

The first thing I’d tell students is that if you don’t know what you want to do yet, that’s ok. Your early career is called practical vocational training, but it’s also called the practice of law. Most law firms have a rotational system where attorneys spend time in different departments. Candidate attorneys might do some transactional work such as drafting contracts, or sometimes the law firm has a construction department or a personal injury department. Some days you might work on road accident fund claims or incidences where people fell into a drain, some days you will do a lot of fancy commercial work that you see on TV, and some days it’s tax. It’s alright to not to know what you want to do or specialize in yet, because you’ll get experiences to help make that decision.

What was the most difficult thing about transitioning from law school to a practicing lawyer?

One of the most challenging things to realise is the fact there are real life consequences to your actions. In varsity, you submit an assignment and if it’s late or you didn’t do your best on it, you might get 10 marks where you would have gotten 50. But it’s just you that bear the consequences. In the practice of law, if you mess up there are real life consequences. Clients react to the advice that you give. If you research something and take it to their board, the board makes the decision based on your research. It can be a scary thing to realise, but that’s why it’s so important to take what you do seriously and do it to the best of your abilities.

Another challenge is the concept of working hours. You will sign a contract that says you’re going to start working at 7 or 8 a.m. until 5 p.m., yet very often I would work until 1 a.m. Especially as a candidate attorney, it was not atypical for me to work until 2 a.m. Even now as a practicing attorney where I have more control over my diary, I still at times work until 2 a.m. You shouldn’t see it as a negative. You must remember you’re no longer a student, you’re a working, contributing member of the economy. You must generate an income and earn your stripes. Law is not a 9 a.m.-5 p.m. job by any means.

Finally, one of the challenges, especially as a candidate attorney, is planning your day. It’s good to plan your day, but in law you must be very agile, be ready to think on your feet, and expect things to change. It’s a very active industry where participants must be ready to jump from one thing to the next. You mustn’t be rigid, thinking that this one task is what I’m coming to do. It’s all over the place — you can be asked to do 10 things at once and must focus on all those things.

What is the most unexpected thing you discovered upon entering the working world?

It can be incredibly daunting when a CEO of a company comes to you for advice and you feel: “I was in varsity just two years ago”. You experience imposter syndrome and it doesn’t easily go away. You learn to manage yourself around it and realise that you are worth it, you are there, and that you deserve to be there. You must just perform to the best of your abilities.

They will be oversight from partners or directors who will oversee your work. At the same time, we are all fallible, and they might miss something, and people will act on that. What’s important is to be mindful that you do important work and do your best in that respect.

What is some advice you have for students studying law?

In law, there’s a clear link between the theory and the practice, and you’re going to use most of the things you learned in university regularly. Most of us who practice law have our law textbooks. I go to them on a regular basis to look up how to do certain things. Take it seriously in school because theory is very important. Beyond that, always keep up to date with the latest legal developments and what’s new in the world of law.

Secondly, write often and learn to write well. Take the time to practice writing. Write articles, stories, or practice some professional writing.

Finally, remember to be an interesting person! This is by far one of the things I highlight. It’s not always about just law. You don’t always have to talk about the law all the time. It gets boring and it’s tiring to interact with someone who can only talk about law. Have other interests. I know it sounds counterintuitive, but being a lawyer is so diverse. You can connect with other people or clients much better if you can speak about other things.

Given the current economic environment, new university graduates face a steep road ahead.

The Career Insights Series is designed to help graduate job seekers. Dell Young Leaders alumni share insights on their career path, highlight a day in the life at their employer, and provide guidance to students on how to stand out to employers and prepare for the world of work.