A summary of data from South Africa’s universities points, for the first time, to more women than men studying law at tertiary level, reports the Law Society of South Africa’s (LSSA’s) Legal Education and Development (LEAD) division.
Enrolment figures were provided to the LEAD division by the University of Cape Town, the University of Fort Hare, the University of the Free State, the University of KwaZulu-Natal, the University of Limpopo, the North-West University, the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, the University of Pretoria, the University of Rhodes, the University of Stellenbosch and the University of South Africa.
The figures show that, in 2010, there were 3 873 first-year female students, of which 2 926 enrolled for an LLB degree, 556 enrolled for a BA (Law) degree and 391 for the BCom (Law) degree, compared with the 3 118 first-year male students, with 2 451, 366, and 301 enrolled for an LLB, a BA (Law) and a BCom (Law) degree respectively.
However, the LSSA says that the challenge lies in retaining women to continue in the more senior levels of the profession. Many graduates pursue careers in other fields. “Another reason for women exiting the profession is that they may find that the flexibility offered by the public sector and by corporates makes it easier to balance work and family responsibilities,” LEAD director Nic Swart says.
Further positive news is the increase in black students in law-related fields of study. In 2010, a total of 5 150 black (including coloured and Asian) students enrolled as first-time students for the LLB degree [4 239], a BA (Law) degree  and a BCom (Law) degree . There were 1 843 white students enrolled as first-year students last year.
It appears that the increased intake of black law students has been at previously advantaged universities, where, in the past, this has been lower. It also indicates that about 80% of the graduates attending the Law Society’s ten centres of the School for Legal Practice are black.
“The demographics of law students have naturally changed over time,” Swart notes.
From the statistics, it appears that the access to law education is currently stable, despite the downturn in the economy. Generally, studying law appears to be popular among students, as it is regarded as a status profession in some areas. Access to study at law faculties may be easier than gaining access to study for other professions. The admission criteria of universities differ.
However, the lack of interest in the BCom (Law) qualification is noticeable. This could be attributed to the low number of matriculants qualifying for entry to the degree, says Swart.
“Not many school leavers choose the BCom (Law) study option – in 2010, there were only 621 candidates enrolled for this degree, compared with the 5 377 candidates enrolled for the LLB qualification.
“There could be many reasons for the lack of uptake to this specialist degree, including limited marketing undertaken by universities to attract students. Or it may be the more stringent entry requirements for BCom (Law), compared with the requirements for the BA (Law) or LLB degrees,” he says.
The Attorneys Fidelity Fund provides bursaries for third- and final-year LLB students. Also, the LSSA continues to assist law graduates from disadvantaged backgrounds in completing their vocational training through interest-free loans to attend the LSSA’s School for Legal Practice.
Swart explains that there are two basic routes candidates follow to become legal practitioners.
These involve the student completing his/her articles over a two-year period, which includes a five-week training course. Alternatively, candidates can enrol at the LSSA’s School for Legal Practice and complete their training in an intensive six-month course, which counts as one year of articles.
“Studying at the School of Legal Practice has many benefits, such as providing in-depth theoretical and practical training for candidates and reducing the time necessary to complete the articles,” he says.
A challenge for graduates is the difficulty that law firms are having in accommodating them as candidate attorneys. Swart says this has been largely owing to the effects of the economic downturn and a lack of funds, particularly in the property law sector.
However, Swart believes that the growth in the number of Legal Aid Justice Centres, through strategies implemented by Legal Aid South Africa, will allow significant numbers of graduates to complete their articles at these centres. He also notes that government’s legal divisions in its various departments are currently strong, affording graduates opportunities to gain working experience.
The LSSA’s LEAD division continues to keep legal practitioners up to date with new legislation that is passed, or is under consideration by Parliament, through various training interventions, such as seminars, workshops and courses. The LSSA must ensure that legal practitioners are informed and aware of any new or draft legislation or relevant updates.
To achieve this, the LSSA has approved a continuing professional development (CPD) programme to be implemented from 2012, which will make it mandatory for all South African attorneys to accumulate a set amount of CPD credits each year to maintain and sharpen their legal skills and knowledge.
Further, Swart reports that practice manage- ment is now a mandatory subject for all attorneys who apply for their Fidelity Fund certificates for the first time. This provides new attorneys with basic business skills to start and run their own law practices successfully.
Further, the LSSA is eagerly anticipating the finalisation of the long-awaited Legal Practice Bill, which will provide clarity on many issues, including the vocational and continuing training of all legal practitioners.
The LSSA hopes that the issue of language use in courts, in an effort to find a balance between the Constitutional right to use all official languages in courts and practicality, will receive the necessary attention.
The LEAD division will give attention to the increasingly important role mediation plays in settling cases in reduced periods and outside the courts, if possible. Swart expects this change to be a mind shift for the legal sector, especially in divorce mediation. Extensive training will be offered in 2011.
“It is encouraging to note that the govern- ment and the legal profession are taking legal education seriously in an effort to maintain the integrity of the South African legal system and to ensure that members of the public have the best-quality legal services,” he concludes.