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From Law Student to Lawyer: Making the Transition

A Digest of IAWL’s Professional Development for Law Students in Collaboration with UCT Women in Law

The Institute for African Women in Law (IAWL) collaborated with the University of Cape Town Women in Law (UCT WiL) to organize a professional development tailored to all law students across Africa. Empowering students before they are admitted to the bar is a guaranteed way to make an impact and better place them to rise to the top. Through this professional development (PD), law students gained insights into different legal career pathways, such as the bar, the bench and the legal academy. They discovered opportunities to tap into and develop skills necessary for career success, including internships, the importance of voluntary work and other initiatives for building practical experience and developing critical networks.

The collaborative event took place on April 20, 2023, via Zoom and focused on giving law students tips on how they can transition into lawyers. You may watch the recorded video here if you couldn’t join us for the live session. Our esteemed panelists were: Belinda Mapongwana (Founder and Director, Mapongwana Attorneys, South Africa), Prof. Emilia Onyema (Professor of International Commercial Law at SOAS University of London, UK), and Naigaga Winfred Kyobiika (Magistrate, Judiciary of Uganda). The moderator was Caitlin Schultz (Head of Mentorship, UCT Women in Law).

Starting as Young Lawyers: Inspiration and Choosing Career Paths

Our panelists shared their inspiration for choosing a career in law, covering three diverse sources.

A parental nudge in the right direction

Prof. Onyema spoke about her legal career being at the direction of her parents, who felt the law would be a good fit for her because she “liked talking too much”. Looking back, she believes that nudging by her parents was a step in the right direction.

The experience of being a firstborn child

As the firstborn child and the “deputy parent”, Magistrate Winfred often resolved disputes among her younger siblings and neighbors, giving her a sense of “fairness and justice”. Those experiences motivated her to become a lawyer and eventually move to the bench.

A mosaic of influences

According to Belinda, multiple drivers steered her to the legal profession: For example, she “used to ask a lot of questions”, she was motivated to fight for justice during the apartheid years in South Africa, and law had always been a childhood dream.

All panelists have steadily progressed in their chosen legal paths and have been successful. We are glad to tap into their wisdom built over the years and generously shared at the event.

Initiatives for Charting a Successful Legal Career

Be adventurous

Being willing to try different things could lead one to a successful legal career path. Speaking on her trajectory to the legal academy, Prof. Onyema revealed that she practiced in Nigeria for about eleven years before transitioning to academia. She was bored with legal practice and took time off to retreat and reflect on her next steps. She eventually pursued her Master's and Ph.D. in the United Kingdom. It was during her doctoral studies that she fell in love with academia. She added that to pursue an academic career, one must pursue graduate studies to the doctoral level. A love of research and teaching may also indicate that a person is cut out for academia. She advised law students to “try things out to be sure that you enjoy them” before settling for a particular career path.

A listening ear to good advice from a mentor

Heeding a mentor's advice is another key to opening the door to a successful legal career. Magistrate Winfred shared that her path to the judiciary was influenced by her mentor at the law firm she was practicing, who told her she would make a good fit on the bench in addition to the more straightforward career path and professional development in the government sector compared to the private sector. She took the advice and responded to the call for applications to the bench. The mentor was kind enough to write a reference for her and help her prepare for the interview. Looking for a mentor? You can sign up for IAWL’s student network to join a community of student mentees. Magistrate Winfred said that successful judicial personnel must pay attention to two things. First, “never stop to like learning” so that you can keep up with the developments in the law. Second, be a good manager of time, resources, people and yourself. With these two, one can map out their career quickly and let go of things that will weigh them down.

Gathering unpaid work experience

Drawing from her experience on how she ended up working with the UN OHCHR for three months, Belinda emphasized how essential internships and voluntary work are in opening up opportunities and widening your professional network. In her words, applying for that experience was one of “the best things I had done because of the network, the people that I met,” whom she is still in touch with for 20 years. She explained that the experience and knowledge she acquired was invaluable and urged young people to be open to taking up such opportunities when they come.

Some introspection and research are needed.

Regarding how students interested in arbitration can chart their path, Prof. Onyema gave some suggestions that cut across all specializations: self-introspection and research. Before deciding on what to specialize in, she advised that students ask themselves some questions: what are you passionate about or interested in? Which jurisdiction would you like to practice that passion in? What are your strengths and weaknesses? What is your definition of success in your career? It is also necessary to research the new and emerging areas, the gaps in existing areas and the key experts in your area of interest and reach out to them via email, LinkedIn or any other available platform.


People tend to underestimate networking, Belinda observed. However, she noted that many opportunities are with people, those you meet for a drink or through a friend and your classmates. Prof. Onyema added that the legal profession is a social one that thrives on one’s social and professional networks. The advent of technology has enhanced navigating networking, so she recommends signing up on social media platforms such as LinkedIn for professional purposes such as commenting on legal developments and writing blogs to gain global recognition and reaching out to potential mentors. Magistrate Winfred concluded that intelligence alone could only get you so far; you need the networks to move to the next level, and when you say that you’re going to do something, show up, and don't give excuses.

Challenges! Because No Career Journey is a Walk in the Park

On challenges encountered, Magistrate Winfred stated, “I can write a book about them. I’ve had quite many”. She mentioned imposter syndrome as a major one, having started her judicial career at 25 when her judicial colleagues and lawyers appearing before her were her seniors. As a mother, work-life balance was another challenge. She had a solid professional and family support system that believed in her and helped her get through them.

Owning a law firm is no mean feat. Belinda touched on the challenges of starting her law firm without a guaranteed clientele and the “comfort of the name of the firm” that is widely known. Her diligence and allowing time for the growth processes resulted in her success. She concluded that the legal career is a marathon, not a sprint therefore, students need a long-term view of want they want to do.

Pushing Forward - Key Takeaways

Our panelists had a few key takeaways:

  • Magistrate Winfred said to recognize your strengths and weaknesses when you join a new space and identify allies who will help you overcome and support your strengths.

  • Prof. Onyema emphasized that the legal profession is not an easy ride. It’s a marathon, and there are no shortcuts. She also said to ask why you’re doing what you do. These will help build resilience and set you up for success.

  • Belinda advised that you believe in yourself, which makes you an easier sell than if you do not believe in yourself. When you have done the work and are showing up, the universe will meet you halfway. Finally, she stated, “always be prepared to do what other people are not willing to do, and you will never go wrong in going the extra mile”.

The session ended with a highly engaging Q&A session worth listening to. Please take a listen here starting at 1:03: 33.


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