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Not Retained as an Associate? These top tips will help!

Not Retained as an Associate? These top tips will help!

Not Retained Top Tips

How to embrace and overcome the challenge of not being retained as an Associate after completing articles of clerkship.

At VDI, we understand what it is like not to be retained after completing articles. Whether expected or unexpected, the harsh reality of not being retained as an Associate can be challenging to say the least. In our current economic times, it’s easy to favour security over salary, or stability over experience, but we would caution against a bullish mindset just to get a job. We recommend some light reading (or heavy reading depending on the behaviour of our parliamentary delegates) to get a feel for the economic market you are about to enter.

The reality is, that you are only starting your career right now. Up until this point, you have been a professional full-time law student. As fun as it was (for some,) we kid, this could be the most important point in your career. We are here to help you take on the task of finding the right position to put your career on the fast-track to success, and by fast-track, we mean the right track. For examples of legal jobs that could be available to you when the time is right, have a look at our jobs page.


How to wrap-up before you leave your firm

Usually, you will be informed ahead of time that you are not being retained. There is likely a legitimate reason for this, be it company budget, space in the team or the firm wanted to retain you in a team you did not want to be in. Whatever the reason, there are a few key things you need to do before you leave:

  • Obtain the most recent payslip. Make sure to cash in outstanding leave days too!
  • Ask your previous Principals and Senior Associates for written reference letters. We absolutely CANNOT stress this enough! An application with commendable references from reputable Directors screams “amazing candidate right here! We couldn’t keep them due to bogus bureaucracy, but if we could hire them back we would!” This is definitely something you want.
  • Arrange coffees with key people in the team you wish to see yourself working in one day. This will help keep you top of mind if a position pops up in the future. Internal referrals carry the highest weight when companies assess potential candidates.

How to build a professional profile and CV

Since you are going to be sending your CV to prominent firms and people in the industry, your profile needs to be on point. We won’t go into the details of how to build the “perfect” CV in this article, but rather highlight the key points that MUST feature in order to help you land the right position:

  • Your CV should contain a matter list. This is a list of matters you were involved in during each rotation. The list could take the format of a table with headings such as Title, Description, Matter Value and Involvement. This list could be the difference between being shortlisted or overlooked in a pile of CVs. The matter list should feature as early on in your CV as possible, even on page two before your work experience.
  • Your CV should contain your personal contact details and a link to all the articles you have published as well as a link to your LinkedIn profile.
  • You should have a professional LinkedIn profile which mirrors your CV. It should include your matter list and specifics about duties and responsibilities within each rotation. Make sure to load a business-like profile picture. A smiling headshot will be perfect! For guidelines on how to build a LinkedIn profile, click here.
  • A cover letter is not necessary, but a short introduction (the same one you would use in your LinkedIn profile) will suffice.

Decide on which area of the law you would like to specialise in

The time for this decision is NOW! Unless you are wanting to run your own generalist practice, then this will be an important decision. The legal industry recognises specialists. There is also a solid body of research concluding that being a specialist in your career contributes to overall job satisfaction and well-being because of the more direct career trajectory and reduced anxiety about the future, not to mention financial stability. You may fall into one of two scenario’s below:

Completing Articles at a Top-tier Firm

Now, we have to say, there is a subtle difference if you are completing your articles at a top-tier, international or highly specialised boutique firm v.s. a medium-sized or generalist firm. If you are at a top-tier firm and your only option is to be retained in a team that you REALLY don’t want to be in, then you could, depending on your personal circumstance, decline the offer and rather search for a team or firm that specialises in what you want to do. At the top-tier level, you will wear the badge of the area of law you are specialised in and it is exceptionally rare that you will get to change specialisations (not impossible, but highly unlikely, like winning the lotto).

What kind of professional will you be if you are doing something you truly don’t enjoy? A better option is to land a position doing something you are good at and that you love, albeit at a boutique or smaller firm, and then get headhunted a few years down the line. This is a risk, but remember a career is a journey where slow and steady wins the race. If your personal circumstances require you to take the offer, then do what is best for you and progress from there.

Completing Articles at a Medium-Sized or Generalist Firm

If you are completing articles at a medium-sized or more generalist firm, then you now have the option to decide on what type of law you think you would like to specialise in. Similar to the case above, you will wear the badge of your specific specialisation for a long time, however, you have the chance to determine what that specialisation is.

You may have done a rotation in Dispute Resolution and loved it, or in Property and hated it, but either way, it is in your interest to do the research and find the area of law you will be great at, and quite importantly, where the future of law is going. Have a look at the types of lawyers currently in demand in South Africa as a start, but in our view, some form or corporate and commercial law will give you a good base to further specialise in a particular industry down the line.  We discuss the application approach in more detail in the next section below.

Where your CV should go for the best chance of finding a position

As with many things worth achieving, this will require some work. In fact, the strategy and steps you should follow are expressly outlined in another article that we will link to at the end of the paragraph, the only difference is that you will now specifically target firms or teams that focus on the area of law that you want to specialise in. Even if you have to take up a position in another area of law to get your foot in the door to a great firm, you should do that (except in the case of having completed articles in a top tier firm, then you ideally need to go into the right team from the start at either a boutique or another top tier-firm). Please read this article and come back to this page to find out what else you should be doing while you are applying for Associate positions.

What to do while you are job hunting

Seeking the right position can be time-consuming and challenging. We highly recommend having other related goals to focus on simultaneously. One of the best things you can do is further your education in-line with your interest in law. You can complete an Honours or Masters in the area of law you would like to specialise in. If you have already done that, find a diploma, course or certificate that you can do which which will enhance your skill-set. This is absolutely vital because it shows that your interest in a particular field of law is sincere, that you are dedicated, academic and committed. You can’t lose with this approach.

You can also leverage social media to start creating the impression of already being a specialist in your field. Publish articles on LinkedIn, submit writings to polity.org and share interesting legal updates. Increasing your activity on social media and digital platforms is effective as both a marketing and networking tool. In fact, you should create this habit now to carry through with you on your journey.

Another option is to take up temporary employment at a reputable firm, or contracting your services out to rack up experience. These employers and clients will be excellent advocates and references for your skills and abilities. The positive impression these references can create for you simply cannot be overstated and is a worthwhile commodity to seek.

Remember that your career is a journey and you must enjoy the process as much as reaching the destination, which truthfully, is only a temporary destination to the next. Find ways to make it fun, don’t rush, don’t panic. Make calculated and smart decisions and believe in yourself. Most of all, work harder than your peers and you are guaranteed to stand out.

Kind regards, The VDI Team.