Note: There is some confusion as to whether the correct spelling is pupillage or pupilage. I have adopted the latter, as has the Johannesburg Bar Council.

Pupilage is the term for the period that newly admitted advocates, (known as barristers in other commonwealth countries) spend learning the ropes of being an advocate. Pupilage is not compulsory. It is however, recommended by the General Council of the Bar of South Africa, the professional association of advocates.

To be eligible for pupilage, one must have completed a legal degree at university. Either a four-year LLB or a three-year undergraduate degree (BA, BCOM, or a BSC) plus a two year LLB from any South African university is necessary. Practical legal experience (having been an attorney, judges clerk, magistrate or other legal professional) is recommended, but not strictly necessary. In addition, a pupil must, during the first couple of months of pupillage be admitted by the court as an advocate. In this regard, see Application for admission as an advocate

Essentially, pupilage is a vocational course that is akin to an apprenticeship. The training to become an advocate is provided by the constituent “Societies of Advocates” of the General Council of the Bar of South Africa. During pupilage, a pupil is paired with an experienced advocate (known as a mentor) to see firsthand how real work is carried out in chambers and in the courts. Pupilage is not a job, and is unpaid. Pupilage consists of practical courtcraft, legal document drafting skills and procedural law.

At some Bars lectures on practice are given. These lectures run in the afternoon and often go on into the evening. Attendance at lectures is compulsory.

Pupils are set certain tasks during pupilage. For example, current pupils of the Johannesburg bar must do the following:
  1. Preparation and conduct of at least 3 civil trials.
  2. Preparation and conduct of at least 6 criminal trials.
  3. The settling of affidavits, and the preparation and presentation of argument in at least 2 opposed motions.
  4. The preparation of at least 2 appeals.
  5. Unopposed motion and divorce work.
  6. Preparation of pleadings, advices on evidence, opinions, and memoranda.
  7. Consultations.
Since the beginning of 2004, pupilage runs over a one year period. The increase in time has been welcomed by pupils and mentors alike since, as opposed to the previous four to six month period, the year period provides pupils with the time to complete the prescribed tasks, study and gain practical court experience.

Pupils also write examinations during October. The five subjects examined are:

  1. The Preparation and Conduct of Civil Trials
  2. Motion Court Practice and Procedure
  3. Criminal Procedure
  4. Ethics
  5. Legal Writing

A pupil must pass the legal writing examination in order to pass pupilage. In addition, if an average of 60% is not attained by the pupil for these examinations as a whole, the Bar Council may subject him/her to an oral examination. The oral examination is notoriously difficult, and most pupils fail it. If the pupil fails the oral examination, he or she has failed pupilage, and will have to restart it the next year.

The average failure rate of pupils is 40-60%

Once a pupil has passed the examinations, and completed the prescribed tasks, he may join the professional association known as the bar.

Note: in order to practice as an advocate in South Africa, it is not compulsory to have completed pupilage, nor even to join the professional association. A number of advocates (known as the rebel bar) have chosen not to. Work is very scarce amongst these advocates.

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