Charné Nel* speaks about her career in law the same way some people speak about chocolate – she luuuurvs it!
The state prosecutor has a deep passion for justice, which is why in 1995, when she was in her 30s, she decided to change career paths to work towards an LLB degree.
Nel says she had reached a ceiling in her job and realised that to reach her full potential she had to pursue a career that would have a more meaningful impact on her life and those of others.
“I really believe that if law is something you’re interested in and if justice is something you feel strongly about, there is nothing more honourable than being a state prosecutor,” she says.
But Nel warns that a career in law can be a long, hard slog and is very far from the wealth and glam image of Hollywood courtroom dramas.
Even in private practice it is not all about hefty pay cheques. She urges people considering the profession to think about the hard work they will have to endure before monetary bliss comes about.
Nel decided to do her studies at the then-Rand Afrikaans University, now the University of Johannesburg. Full-time studies for the six-year course were out of the question for a working person, so she embarked on a part-time programme. Added to her load she had to do 100 hours of community service in her final year.
“What kept me going was the determination to be better. I think you need to have a goal, a picture in your mind of what you want to achieve,” Nel says.
But the graft was not over. She had to attend six months of law school, do her time at a law firm and sit for the Law Society exams.
When that was all behind her Nel applied and was selected to take up a position as a prosecutor, working first at a district court before taking up her position at the regional court.
“I can remember my first case, I was petrified. It was an assault GBH (grievous bodily harm) case and I lost,” she laughs.
But that first day seems a long time ago, especially as prosecutors are expected to deal with between eight and 10 trials a day.
“I try to always be properly prepared, so it means sacrifices like staying up late to go through the material, but I think it’s important because the taxpayers pay us to do this job and it’s an insult to the public to go into court unprepared,” Nel says.
There are rewards such as the deep sense of satisfaction she feels in being able to put away rapists, child molesters, thugs and criminals.
“The bureaucracy does get me down sometimes,” she says. “There is shoddy police work sometimes, for example, but on the whole we are getting convictions, which means the system is working.”
Nel says the profession needs practitioners who are committed, professional and ready to be the best they can be. These are ingredients that are needed for a judicial system that is unshaken in its integrity but robust enough to respond to a society’s changing needs.
There is something Superwoman-like about Nel when she whips on her dark robes and strides into a courtroom. But this is not a comic book, it is real life where wielding the weapon of the judiciary with deftness puts society’s bad guys behind bars.
* Not her real name