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To turn your camera on or not to turn your camera on?

Written by Faatimah Essack (Associate), and supervised by: Penny Chenery (Director & Head of Real Estate) from Lawtons Incorporated

“Your Lordship, it is my humble submission that I was not absent from the ‘offices’ of my principal for more than 30 working days during one calendar year from the date of commencement of my practical vocational training contract.”

This is a familiar phrase for many candidate legal practitioners who’ve had to apply for their admissions during 2021 and 2022, as we faced the Level 5 national lockdown period announced by Cyril Ramaphosa on a casual Monday evening, on 23 March 2020.

I started my articles wide-eyed and bushy-tailed, making the move from sleepy Durban to vibrant Johannesburg, and spending many an eve re-paginating bundles or committing passionately to murder the printer while trying to clear yet another paper jam. A pandemic was not the challenge I had in mind, but as the circumstances of the world evolved, so too did the law and how we started to practice it.

One thing lawyers love to do is TALK, and when we could no longer do it face to face, we, like many other professions, turned to platforms like Zoom or Microsoft Teams. I sat in front of my screen with a barely washed face, still in my pyjamas at 10 am, not exactly the put-together candidate attorney one might expect. I saw my directors and senior counsels on the most personal of levels: notably without suits, ties and haircuts.

Navigating the virtual horizon was also not easy when most of my directors were part of Generation X and could not figure out that they were in fact on mute or that we could hear the argument they were having with their kids in the background.

Patience is a virtue and virtue is grace

The entirety of my articles was served during the national lockdown as we moved up and down levels. Practical Legal Training (PLT) and the Law Society in conjunction with LEAD (Legal Education and Development) had to become more lenient in their approach to our suffering.

Trust me, you will be eternally grateful for many years to come that PLT became virtual or at least partially so, as you can curl up under a blanket with the gas heater and a cup of hot chocolate, rather than being subjected to a cold lecture hall in the middle of winter.

The situation felt even more precarious when our board exams were moved to November, another unprecedented event, having not yet completed half of the syllabus. So, with that in mind, prepare for anything, literally anything, as even our question paper decided to remind us of the existence of COVID-19 with scenarios alluding to the economic hardship that many individuals and companies had faced as a direct result of the lockdown. We wracked our brains trying to figure out if we had learned anything at all in that litigation rotation, which consisted of uploading documents onto CaseLines and never physically going to court.

The return to the office and how to conduct yourself virtually and in person

The return to the office hasn’t happened to the extent that it was at the start of my articles. Teams come in depending on the necessity and you can often go weeks without seeing some of your colleagues. Most meetings still happen virtually and the only court you will likely visit is the magistrates’ court, which is truly in a league of its own.

However, teams like Real Estate are in nearly every single day and have resumed to almost “normal” due to the necessity of physically seeing clients and the Deed’s Offices reliance on paper.

The office still feels like a ghost town and there are no big lunches with your work friend group and, personally, I feel like this has contributed to a disconnection among colleagues and loneliness, as we were so integral to each other’s daily lives at the office. It creates a culture of isolation and we, as legal practitioners and future legal practitioners, must now put in place new measures to ensure that we don’t lose touch with our directors and fellow colleagues and maintain the connections we set out to make.

Some ways that you can achieve this:

  • Don’t assume you will not be asked to turn your camera on during a virtual meeting. You should always be prepared to appear professional even if you’re not conducting an in-person meeting. I have had a judicial case management meeting with many judges and one specific judge decided we should introduce ourselves on the very day I decided not to look my best.
  • Always be mindful of your tone and general etiquette in correspondence as it’s extremely important that you’re not misunderstood. This can often be misinterpreted in a professional setting and can set a bad example of your capabilities. This is especially important, bearing in mind the rise of short messaging services like Microsoft Teams and WhatsApp, and applies equally when communicating with work colleagues. Many teams have put in place work WhatsApp groups to streamline the ability to collaborate with one another.
  • If you find yourself working remotely, it can be incredibly isolating and distracting. It’s imperative that you always check in with your supervisor, so that they’re aware of the work you’re currently busy with and whether you have the capacity to be assigned another task. That develops and maintains a relationship of mutual trust and co-operation and you ensure that you’re getting the best possible experience from your articles. Your main aim should always be to learn and grow from the experiences that come before you. Staying silent will not make a good impression on anyone.

Parting words

With all the negatives that COVID-19 brought, I truly believe it hastened the very rigid legal profession into the fourth industrial revolution and enabled hybrid working, which was never thought to be possible. With that in mind, we must appreciate the flexibility that is now available to us.

To an extent, however, I do feel robbed of a true articles experience and would’ve loved to have been more exposed to the pomp and splendour that the profession is known for. It’s my truest wish that, as the restrictions are being lifted and life feels a little more normal, we will be able to strike a balance between the traditional practice of law and embracing the digital age.

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