By Neo Mokone
Cape Town – There is a stereotypically imposed perception by the various South African law firms of “what constitutes an employable law graduate”.
I have learnt with dismay that a student who achieves an average below 65% – whether they are doing post- or undergraduate studies – is ineligible for either vacation work or articles in most South African law firms.
I fundamentally disagree. The mere fact that I do not end up with a minimum of 65% – 75% average as a postgraduate student does not necessarily imply that I am less of an asset than those whose marks fall within the so-called desirable benchmark.
What most of the law firms do not know or take cognisance of is that institutions such as Stellenbosch University (SU) aim to produce academics, rather than practising legal professionals.
This is supported by its mission statement which says:“(SU) is a research-intensive university where we attract outstanding students, employ talented staff and provide a world-class environment; a place connected to the world, while enriching and transforming local, continental and global communities.”
The effect of this is that students are taught module contents in their entirety, as opposed to selected parts, as with other universities.
The scope of tests and exams is something to the effect of “the test or exam will be based on everything that we have done thus far”.
My point is that, for a student to even score 50% aggregate, they need to have exhibited a high level of work ethic in order to cover all the prescribed and non-prescribed work for the test or exam.
This is particularly strenuous for postgraduates like myself who have soft issues such as taking care of a family and working piece-jobs so that my family can have bread at the end of the day – unlike undergraduates who mostly reside at university accommodations with domestic services, or those whose parents are legal practitioners and thus discuss legal principles at mealtimes.
An unfamiliar perspective relates to the fact that those who do well in their studies are known for mastering the skill of cramming.
They do well, particularly because they can reiterate, verbatim, everything they learnt from the book, directly on to their scripts.
Their traits are well known to be “cramming, passing and forgetting” immediately when leaving the exam hall.
Although 50% on face value seems like a poor performance, it is not when achieved through Stellenbosch University, particularly if it means that a student with 50% has knowledge equivalent to half of the entire module content – especially postgraduates.
So here we have two categories of the desirable 65%-75%: those in the camp of crammers and those from other universities, where assessments are based only on selected topics for a module.
Thus, the knowledge acquired here cannot be compared with that off a student who has had to study literally everything prescribed for each module.
It is unfortunate that these are the type of candidates our big law firms are targeting.
Put differently: this 65% criterion, by implication, causes big law firms to ultimately recruit candidates who lack adequate knowledge of the law and thus would require extensive training once employed.
These candidates are supposedly referred to as academics (as most do not even participate in activities such as moots, vacation work or additional activities through societies) and thus, not well rounded.
This is why one can safely say they lack emotional intelligence, interpersonal skills, the drive and the passion to work since they have never been exposed to such in order to know what it entails.
Conversely, candidates with less desirable averages are thus recruited by smaller firms. Owing to the difficulty finding articles, these firms end up employing hard-working, motivated, driven candidates with a work ethic of champions.
My point is that no such candidates with 65% recruited by a law firm at any given time will ever come close to what individuals like myself would bring to the table.
Take, for, example, a final-year student in a three-year postgrad LLB at Stellenbosch University (being enrolled for this degree means one has completed a prior degree that is not law-related) who has a prior BA degree and has held various strategic positions in communication and research and was a partner in a tourism business.
In other words, the student in question is not merely an academic, as she was previously employed for over 10 years.
This alone should give an indication that the candidate demonstrates maturity, is experienced and can contribute to a company from day one of employment.
Employing someone like her/ him means that there are certain qualities, skills and attributes which come with the package. For example, it will not be necessary to invest a firm’s money to educate her/him on what is meant by critical thinking, work ethic, time management and all of those other minor general knowledge qualities and skills taught to entry-level employees.
Owing to the orthodox understanding of what constitutes an ideal candidate, and because of his/ her average mark which is below the desired benchmark, many firms have overlooked her/him as a potential candidate and therefore have lost an asset that could have generated millions of rand for them.
There are various other factors that must be considered when recruiting potential law graduates, especially postgraduate students.
It is for these reasons that I comfortably say a 50% aggregate achieved through studying an LLB degree at Stellenbosch can compete with any other 65-75% aggregate attained by another student from a different learning institution.
The current criteria are not in line with our constitutional dream; hence, I think it is high time that law firms rethink, reconsider and revamp their recruitment policies to accommodate unrecognised “gems” such as myself.
* Mokone is the founding deputy chairperson of BLASC Stellenbosch Branch, a final-year student in a three-year postgraduate LLB at Stellenbosch University, and holds a BA degree in Communication Science, International Politics and Human Sciences