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Volunteers' Stories




Tales of an English Intern in a South African Law Firm


Halfway up St George’s Mall, Cape Town’s answer to Fleet Street, lie the offices of Bowman Gilfillan Attorneys, winners of the 2007 African Law Firm of the Year Award.

Like many law firms, Bowmans offers internships to law students from all over the world. It was the opportunity to spend time at an internationally recognised law firm, which tempted this English law graduate to flee the British weather and head for sunnier climes.

Bowmans, a major player in the African market, and its vacation schemes are comparable to those offered by law firms in London. The quality of work is certainly very high – Bowmans was recently involved in a $5.4billion acquisition of Standard Bank Group Ltd by the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China - and this is no “poor cousin” of the English law firms.

During your internship the firm treats you like one of their own trainees. You spend time in different departments – the firm specialises in commercial, maritime, employment, litigation and conveyancing – and you undertake a range of work including drafting, writing opinions and legal research.

But really the placement is about you as an individual and what you make of your time. Right at the outset Bowmans asks what you want to do, what you want to learn and what your individual strengths are. There is freedom to switch departments, get really involved in a big case or spend more time in the area you feel you work best in.

One piece of advice I was given before I came here has proven more valuable than any other: the more you put in, the better your experience will be. Sitting at your desk and emailing people to ask for work is not the way forward. Be proactive, knock on doors and offer to help wherever you can. Maybe even suggest work you could do to help them. If you have knowledge and ability in certain areas, make this clear and approach the attorneys who work in this area.

Most attorneys look for enthusiasm and reliability. The best way to gain the trust of the attorneys is by actively seeking out work, doing it well and getting it back in good time. Above all though, be yourself and don’t be afraid of displaying your own character. You are here to learn but also to enjoy yourself.

And enjoying yourself is not hard over here. Being in Cape Town during the Rugby World Cup was an eye-opening experience. I found that many South Africans have spent time in England and there is far more in common between the two countries than just the language. South Africans also have a great sense of humour and seem to enjoy talking to the Poms… even if it’s just to gloat about “that” try in the World Cup Final.

Working in a South African law firm has been a great experience and an internship can bring with it many opportunities. With a little work and the right attitude, it could be one of the best experiences of your life. At some point every intern has to return home, but in this case, fond memories of St George’s Mall, Cape Town, will be flying back with me.

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