Jonathan Purnell

Current Job: 
Candidate Attorney at Norton Rose Fulbright
Go and experience everything on offer and try your utmost to do what makes you happy and builds up your own understanding of yourself.

About your current job:

How did you obtain your current position?

I applied for an internship at the Johannesburg office of Norton Rose Fulbright but was then asked if I would prefer to get involved in the vacation work and articles selection process. Without hesitation, I accepted and spent two weeks working at the firm where I assisted with actual matters and got some real work experience. During these two weeks, I completed a few tests and interviews and was lucky enough to be offered a position in the Johannesburg office to do my articles of clerkship to become an attorney- an opportunity I could never decline.

In what way does your qualification relate to your work, whether directly or indirectly?

Directly- I am working toward becoming a practicing attorney in South Africa which requires the completion of an LLB.

What are the key skills that have contributed to your success thus far?

I think the skills which have contributed most to my success in this field are my openness to change and ability to stay calm under pressure as working in such a large firm can be quite a high octane environment where you’ll be exposed to a variety of different areas which you might not have dealt with in your studies. Other extremely important characteristics include diligence (I feel that I’ve always been required to push myself to ensure that no deadlines are missed and that the quality of my work remains of a high standard), communication skills (verbally for client management and network creation as well as written because the legal profession is built on paper) and a light-hearted, comfortable attitude (out in the ‘real world’, I’ve been in some heated and unexpectedly confrontational situations but I’ve found that the best way to handle them is with good humour and a relaxed temperament otherwise life can become a bit tiresome and frustrating).

What are your day-to-day activities?

Work, work, work! I’ve been in a number of different teams in the firm so the type of work I’ve done has depended on the department I was in at the time. While in our Insurance Litigation practice, I worked on a variety of court cases that ranged from quite minor work (such as motor vehicle accidents) to large disputes between large corporate entities. I’ve also had a stint in Commercial Litigation in which I’ve assisted banks and other large corporates with their disputes. Construction and Professional Indemnity was another department in which I spent 6 months assisting in arbitrations relating to auditing disputes and issues arising out of construction contracts or building collapses. I have recently been seconded to Norton Rose Fulbright’s office in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania where I’m involved in large cross-border commercial contracts, negotiations and transactions. Over here, I have worked mostly on the financing and implementation of large renewable energy projects which are popping up all over Africa.

What are the best and most challenging parts of your job?

Because of the nature of legal work, the best parts of my job are usually the most challenging. We are often exposed to novel legal situations in which we need to assess the law as it stands to predict how it might affect situations that haven’t yet come before the courts. This involves a lot of research and understanding of the structure of the legal landscape which I find extremely engaging and interesting as it usually entails lots of team discussion and debate to build an opinion. Because our views are usually given to a client who will be investing a lot of their resources in terms of our recommendations, the pressure is quite overwhelming but it’s satisfying to be near the forefront of legal development.

I would say the most challenging aspect of my job was actually getting used to having a full-time job. For the first few months, it was hard to adjust to working long days and I often found myself dozing off in the early afternoons because of sheer exhaustion! But luckily you get ‘work fit’ after a while and these problems seem to fade while you become more and more engaged in what you do.

About your time at UCT:

How did your extra-curricular involvement while at UCT add value (transferable skills) to what you offer the world of work/your degree?

I wasn’t directly involved in any student organisations and my society participation at UCT wasn’t as high as it should have been but every single exposure to situations in which I needed social or communication skills as well as a knack for organisation has helped me build towards where I am now. Something that everyone needs to remember is that, in the job market, you don’t just need to be good at keeping your work organised and up to standard, you need to be good at organising yourself and managing your own personal network and client interactions. Social skills are massively important.

To what extent did you make use of the Careers Service while you were at university?

To be honest, I believe I found out about the potential internship at Norton Rose Fulbright through an email or poster sent around the law faculty by the Careers Service.

For those working/living abroad:

What are your key lessons on being successful when living and/or working abroad?

I guess I qualify as ‘working/living abroad’ even if it is only for 6 months. I haven’t been in Tanzania long but within days, I realised that you need to have an open mind and get in touch with the locals. I’ve already made a few friends with people who have grown up here and these relationships have been invaluable on both the social and working front. Dar es Salaam is essentially my home now so I feel that immersing myself in the cultures and lifestyles of this city is the best way for me to have a successful and fulfilling time here. There are obviously going to be difficulties wherever you go whether it’s a language barrier (like here in Tanzania where Swahili is the spoken language), access to resources or just generally feeling far out of your comfort zone so you have to take every opportunity to become a part of the society in which you live and do the best to understand and integrate.

How did you find/research the opportunity to work abroad?

Because Norton Rose Fulbright is such a global firm with offices all over the world, they offer a type of exchange program whereby candidate attorneys can be transferred to other offices for 6 months to gain experience and build international networks within the firm. At the moment, the South African offices can send us to Tanzania, London and Australia (with more seats hopefully opening up in the future) so all I had to do was put in my application (merely a motivational essay was required) and hope for the best!

Advice to current students:

How best should students use their time at university to give themselves a competitive edge in your field?

Be yourselves and find out who you are and what you stand for! Though it’s an old cliché, it’s a cliché for a reason because every person who walks out of the Jammie Hall after graduation has the same degree and same education as everyone else, the only difference is who you are. If you use your time at UCT to define your character and get a full picture of yourself, you will instinctively be drawn to the field or institution which suits your character. Though I’m not involved in the recruitment of graduates and have a fairly minor experience of the working world, I have seen that it’s not necessarily the smartest or the most diligent who get chosen (though obviously that plays a role); it’s those that are comfortable in themselves and have the confidence to be themselves and have their own opinions who tend to have the edge- they’re the ones who will contribute constructively to new ideas and not the ones who conform to what they think they should be.

In retrospect, what advice can you give to students about how to approach their own career development journeys?

Obviously everyone should work towards their degrees and their marks because, first and foremost, you went to UCT to get an education but after that things get a bit more complicated and will depend from field to field. I think you should apply yourself wherever you see an opportunity and try to get exposure to your desired field because, at the end of the day, you can’t win the lottery unless you buy a ticket. But another piece of advice (which might seem a bit out of the ordinary in a careers-oriented forum such as this) is that you need to enjoy your time at UCT. Go and experience everything on offer and try your utmost to do what makes you happy and builds up your own understanding of yourself. You’d be surprised at how many people come out of varsity having never truly discovered who they are and what they actually want from life off campus.

Do you have any advice for a new graduate entering the world of work?

If you’ve got yourself a job lined up and you have that security, push yourself into every opportunity that comes your way; experience is worth a lot out here and the more you’ve done, the more you will be allowed to do in the future.

If you’re walking out of your graduation without anything waiting for you, send out as many applications as you can because you need to get your name out there. Don’t be upset by rejections or stressed by the potential for rejection because, unless you’re lucky, there will be places which don’t think you’re the right fit. Just don’t be rejected in silence, if possible you should find out why your application didn’t make the cut and use that as experience when setting up for the next one. And, as I’ve said above, all experience is good experience so don’t be too picky. If you’re trying to get a permanent position, don’t turn down internships just because they’re temporary because you want exposure and connections that could help build your future career.