Career in law: A world of fine options

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By Tim Kamau Ngotho

Those who aspire to be lawyers will need to re-think and clarify their vision before, during and after the original choice. More specifically, there will be career choices at four main stages of the journey: high school, specialisation decision, mid-career switch, and during a career crisis. The depth of information and understanding required increases from one stage to next.

In high school or immediately after, career choice is a major decision. The choice to study law leads to another big one: which university? Until 1992, there was only one university in Kenya – the University of Nairobi – that offered a law degree. Students from all over Kenya competed for the few positions available. Law was, perhaps, the most competitive degree for those inclined to the arts.

Children often come under tremendous pressure to pursue Law and to make the grades for it. In coaching, I have observed that many families where at least one parent is a lawyer or other professional seem near obligated to create a lawyer even if it has to be through blood, sweat or tears on the part of the child.

Even clans crave for self-sufficiency in professions such as law, medicine and engineering. Whilst we might easily dismiss them, we must at least acknowledge that they are driven somewhat by a desire to see their children succeed – in the interest of the child – over and above any bragging rights. And that the child is the eventual beneficiary from a good education. Still, the designated child shoulders a big responsibility and pressure when making the decision, and more when effecting it.

The earlier dispensation ensured that anybody who made it to law school was a “sharp razor” who had cut through the “A” Level or KCSE filter or negotiated enough barriers to study abroad. While today the situation remains competitive and engaging, there has been a remarkable increase of law schools in Kenya. Many have lower entry requirements and fees requirements, which indicate an open door for those who qualify. In addition, there is a wider acceptance of law degrees from many countries, which means that most people who desire to study law can do so.

The removal of earlier barriers related to “a superior IQ” has somewhat brought more high school graduates within the legal career horizon. A danger here is that a greater proportion of law students are unable to cope with the mental, organisational and time challenges necessary to read law. Some will therefore drop out while others will slide along and find challenges after graduation.

Mid-career entry

In the past, once the university admission bus had moved, it was nigh impossible to catch it using alternative routes. Ease of entry now has provided opportunities to many who could not, earlier on, make the cut but still harboured a desire to study law. The introduction of the Module 2 option in public universities saw a big stream of students enrol through evening programmes and even online degrees by reputable universities abroad. It has been necessary to coach such individuals on the rigours of legal study. They would have benefitted from advice that was often given in the 1980’s by a Law of Evidence Lecturer just before his exam: “… it will separate the men from the ‘mboys’. As for the ladies, may God ‘elp them.”

Post-graduation questions

Upon graduation, one is presented with career path choices. This is true for a school leaver as it is for a seasoned professional. Often, the decisions made there are for life, hence the need to understand the profession, its cognitive demands, one’s personality inclinations and passion, and the opportunities that the choice avails. If choices have consequences, then life choices have lifelong consequences. Most schools and parents do not possess sufficient skill or time to guide the youth on such important choices. Universities and bar school being teaching institutions focus more on pedagogy than career.

There is general perception that a lawyer should be an extroverted, high-energy person who can argue out cases in court. This perception is fed from TV court drama and the belief that every lawyer works in court all the time. Many an introverted child has been dissuaded from studying law on the basis that his/her manner would create a tongue-tied, boring attorney, and thus a perpetual loser in court.

My response in coaching is that the trial is only the public or visible end of a process; long days spent on documents, detail, study, reflection and strategy precede the assumed glamour in court. Indeed, many excellent trial lawyers are socially retiring and more reflective than active. Remember Atticus Finch from the novel To kill a Mockingbird? In the real world, courtrooms cases are won by the merit of one’s argument, rigour, and understanding of the law.

It is true that those who come from extremities within the extroversion/introversion continuum would do well to understand the other side, but do not have to become it. This is not to underestimate the power of courtroom theatrics and positive influencing skills in winning judges over, but it is also to suggest that the card is often overplayed. Judges make their decisions in quiet places devoid of theatrics. There, both the demagogue and the quiet sage get a hearing. This myth would need to be demystified to open doors for many young, intelligent and capable students who have their sights on law.

The apparent truth is that is that the Judge and Advocate are the two main options open to law graduates. The whole truth is that a law degree lands one in a large hallway with many doors to choose from, two of which are marked BAR and BENCH in large letters, making them more visible than all others. Many people shy away from legal studies based only on the part of the elephant they have heard about; the one in the courtroom, I mean. Full knowledge, coupled with assessment, would assure many students that they are suited for other careers within law.

Specialisation

The legal profession globally has matured into specialised sectors, with broad option areas. These include judging, trial advocacy, commercial/conveyancing, corporate, rights advocacy, public service, dispute resolution, the academy and civil society. Within those are further areas of sub-specialisation. For instance, within the bench, there are specialisations evident in the High Court Divisions. Another example is commercial law where some lawyers specialise in large commercial transactions, maritime, intellectual property, insurance, banking, etc. In the academy, there are opportunities for lecturing, research, writing and consultancy.

In spite of the great diversity of the profession, law is still taught within the bar/bench paradigm, and no law school in Kenya appears to have differentiated itself in any substantial way. Whereas the Council of Legal Education requires each law school to have a distinct approach, these lofty statements exist only on paper for the purpose of gaining accreditation. The same Council lists sixteen courses as prerequisites for admission to bar school, which are practice-attuned, leaving law schools with very little room for differentiation. Is it not possible to have avenues of complete legal qualification for graduates who never wish to practise in court?

The mid-career professional who has acquired law as a second profession has a tougher choice to make: whether to start at the bottom rung or continue with the familiar primary profession, having satisfied a life’s ambition to become a lawyer. Many opt to stay in their primary profession and find legal application or clarity to their existing career. Examples are: an accountant who gains added skills and credibility by bringing law into accounting, risk management or tax practice; the HR practitioner who brings a legal approach to Human Resource management; or the insurer who gains a deeper grasp of the underlying legal aspects of insurance. They are able to enrich their professional lives with knowledge of the law but, more importantly, perspectives, approaches, thinking, logic and traits that are acquired in the study of law as a discipline.

After many years in a successful career they may find that they have achieved their initial reasons for entry. These might have been service to society, intellectual quest, or personal aggrandisement in status or wealth, among others. There are always those who, after working for many years, find a discontinuity in their lives. Whatever brought one to the crossroads, there is need to face oneself again and evaluate gifts and talents as well as passion.

Many lawyers, after years of practice, have moved on to dispute resolution that offers an alternative to the court process. Many of these doors require specific legal knowledge while others tap into the general array of skills and competences mentioned earlier, acquired in the study and practice of law. Society is the beneficiary.

Seek and give help

High school career counselling is a good place to start. Well-equipped guidance and career teachers would give relevant and detailed information. Many schools have a wealth of professional people who live and work near them or who identify somewhat with the locality. Inviting them for career talks and fairs would help students engage and gain insight into their careers. Law schools should consider having career guidance offices for current students as well as walk-in enquiry centres.

Anyone who reads law ought to do so with open eyes and mind to realise the wealth (pun intended) of a broad profession and align according to well-identified gifts, talents, skills, interests and passion. Career coaching professionals, aided by the right psychometric assessment tools, can help in the alignment process. Ultimately, it behoves those who have walked the beaten path, blazed a trail or totally reversed the equation to share, mentor, counsel, and guide others. For from whom so much is given, much is required! ^

Author practices Organisational Psychology and teaches
Leadership and Psychology

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