Re-adjusting to Uganda’s legal environment

Making the transition from University abroad and taking your next steps towards professional development.

E0D34132-F22F-4975-9898-0FCB51C5EF02I’ll be honest and say I wasn’t 100% sure of my next steps right after completing my undergraduate LLB degree in 2015. However, I did know for certain that I wanted to start my career in Uganda. It had always been a home base for me despite living and schooling outside Uganda since the age of five. What I was less sure about was whether practising law in the traditional sense was what I wanted to do for the foreseeable future, let alone the rest of my life.

I soon came to realise a lot of people feel that same confusion, and almost crippling angst standing at this juncture of the “beginnings” of one’s career. The truth is that the period right after completing your undergraduate degree can be very disorienting and daunting for graduates; this is especially if you haven’t clarified some of these questions in your own mind. For some of us “global nomads” this is further amplified by the fact that you also have to deal with the process of re-integrating back into the cultural and professional context of your home country.

I should mention that “transitioning” in this case deals with what I view as the first crucial step one should take before making the decision to pursue legal practice. The actual process of entering legal practice in Uganda is a whole separate topic of discussion and is something I am still undergoing. What is paramount for new graduates is that one clarifies in their own minds that traditional legal practice is something they actually see themselves doing and enjoying before making the decision to pursue it.

Law degree ≠ law in practice

A lot of people opt to dive straight into a masters or other post graduate study right after completing their LLB, which is fine if you are certain of what you want to do. I personally feel that university doesn’t do a great job in giving students clear insight into what it actually means to be a lawyer in the real world. And despite law degrees being very valuable and versatile, the reality is that you spend the majority of your undergraduate degree learning about law in theory and less time learning about law in practice.

It is for this reason that the number one piece of advice most employers give students is to do as much work experience as they can during their time at University. You often find that the people who have done the most work experience generally have more clarity and resolve about what they would like to do after university and how they are going to go about it.

During my 3 years at University I did some legal work experience, but I didn’t feel it was enough to give me substantial insight into the life of a practising lawyer. I felt unresolved on the question of whether or not traditional legal practice was for me especially when I considered what entering legal practice would entail. I had enjoyed certain aspects of my law degree but was less fond of others, and I felt conflicted because of this. Would I be able to flourish and enjoy practising law when I didn’t wholly enjoy the study of law? What I came to realise was that my personal sentiments towards my law degree mattered only marginally because practising law was very different to studying it at university.

My personal experience

I was lucky in that I was able to find a top law firm in Uganda that was willing to accommodate me as a trainee soon after university. In commencing their graduate training program I told them I wanted to try everything out and be thrown in the deep end so that by the end of the program I would be clear on these 3 things:

  1. What legal practice in Uganda entailed,
  2. If it was something I wanted to pursue, and
  3. What area(s) of legal practice I wanted to specialise in.

By the end of my time working with them I had gained great clarity on each of these points.I could now say with confidence that I understood what being a practising lawyer was about. I realised that though I had survived undergrad with good grades, I much preferred law in practice than I did learning it in theory, and I was now clear on the fact that I actually wanted to pursue a career in law. I could finally see for myself a career in corporate/commercial practice having gained insight into how vast the sector was and how rapidly it was developing across the continent. I felt a pull towards international commercial work, specifically cross border transactions, because it was so dynamic and it felt like being at the forefront of Uganda’s economic development.

Some people may go through this process and have the opposite conclusions, realising that legal practice isn’t suited to them and their aspirations and that’s okay, at least now you know and can start exploring the vast array of other avenues you can pursue with your skill set and qualifications. Nana Omondi wrote a great article on all the different things you can do with your law degree which you can read here https://yeaaln.org/2018/07/19/a-degree-is-not-a-one-track-road/. Regardless, I would still argue that getting a good amount of work experience in (be it through an extended internship or other volunteering schemes) is a vital step to clarifying your career goals even outside of traditional legal practice. A lot of “legal skills” are transferable across industries and sectors so don’t limit yourself and take as much time out as you need trying different things and stretching yourself.

Final thoughts…

Making that transition from university to the real world can feel like jumping off a cliff into the unknown, and particularly difficult if you have become accustomed to the planning and structure of your formative years. But as author Ray Bradbury says a lot of the time, life is about “jumping off the cliff and learning how to make wings on the way down.” Everyone is on a different journey and everyone is figuring it out as they go along. I urge you to not feel too disoriented and disheartened as you make this transition into your professional life. Don’t be scared of the unfamiliar waters but rather, do as much as you can to stay informed and familiarise yourself with your environment as your vision for yourself and your professional development becomes clearer.

Focus on building your knowledge of the industry, sharpening your skill set and positioning yourself to learn as much as you can from the very best in your sector. Remember to stay hydrated, have fun, and enjoy the journey!

Priscilla Busulwa

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