This is going to be another negative article of mine about studying law, but I want to emphasise before I begin it, that there are exceptions to everything. Somebody with a good brain and who is hard working and with excellent client liaison skills will always do well in any field, no matter how many challenges they face.
One cannot however ignore that unfortunately law degrees have become far too popular, especially after they were made much easier to obtain when you no longer had to get an under-graduate, or first degree first, before studying a law degree. The advantage of having that first degree is that you have a chance to get an education, to study various other subjects and not just learn about a very narrow field of law. Too many younger attorneys being admitted to the profession have a very little idea as to what is going on in the world and I think to be a good attorney, you do need to have an idea of what is going on in business, politics and the world you live in and be able to adapt to it. Those who do not read newspapers or at least the news online, are very unlikely, in my opinion, to succeed, and I can say without exception that the successful attorneys as well as advocates that I know are equally conversant on the law as they are on what sport event took place on that day, what the latest in South African politics is, the world economy or other such issues. There may be exceptions to that, but I have not come across them yet.
The challenges that the legal profession face is a continuing stream of new entrants into the legal field, while so much work is being taken away from attorneys and other areas are under constant threat such as personal injury law. Even when they are not under threat, they face the spectre of legal fees being reduced at the very same time that overheads are rising. I don’t think it is too far away from the day when you go shopping at a Pick ‘n Pay Hypermarket for example, that there will be two or three attorneys sitting in the entrance who disburse a quick 15 minutes of advice to loyal shoppers, who have a membership card, on maintenance or various other issues. I am bombarded with CV’s for people who wish to become either candidate attorneys or who have just been admitted as attorneys and would like a job with our firm. Without exception they would obviously have a four year University degree and yet in training they seem to be earning an average salary of about R4 500,00 to R6 000,00 a month and as a beginner attorney, they are earning approximately R10 000,00 a month and a bit more if they are lucky enough to have started off at a busy and successful practice. I am obviously not talking about the salaries at the big five or six major corporate law firms who take the cream of the talent from the law schools every year – only those with the very highest marks.
I am talking about salaries being paid at average law firms all across the bigger cities like Johannesburg and Pretoria, which happen to pay far higher salaries than one would earn in Cape Town, Durban or smaller centres. I think that that is all you need to know about the state of the legal profession – is it worth it to study for four years, then do one or two years of articles, write admission exams and once you have been through all of that, which could easily be 6 to 6 ½ years, to earn R10 000,00 a month? The AMCU miners are after all demanding R12 500,00 a month and every law firm owner will tell you that he or she has a number of secretaries employed by him or her that earn more than attorneys. All what these figures point to is a complete over-supply of people to a profession and we are producing far too many attorneys instead of engineers and possibly top policemen and policewomen/investigators who can reduce our crime and cut down our corruption.
A law degree is certainly very useful in business and more and more often it leads to attorneys, after a year or two in practice, joining corporate firms for a small increase over what they are earning in a law firm with the guarantee of benefits, etc. That is a personal choice but I never studied law and obtained three University degrees just so that I could become a legal officer, consultant or compliance assistance in a corporate entity. That is not what law is about to me and unfortunately there too, apart from those really brilliant individuals who have stepped into companies at senior positions, most of those going into that particular field, while initially getting a higher increase, will never be able to achieve what they could have, being a practicing attorney in a law firm . That may to appear to contradict what I have just written – but it does not. I began this article by saying that is that anybody who has ability and is hard working will get ahead despite the terrible challenges facing the profession. But law schools and parents should really start trying to steer their children in a different direction at the moment and not putting them all into the same field!