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A&O stories: Sethu Khumalo and Qi Xie share their new joiner experience

24 November 2021

Sethu Khumalo and Qi Xie, two of A&O’s 2020 intake, had to adjust swiftly to virtual working – and A&O couldn’t have been more helpful in supporting them.
Sethu Khumalo

Connected during lockdown

Sethu (Siphosethu) Khumalo joined the Johannesburg office in February 2020 to complete his training.

I was training to become a lawyer with a small firm in Johannesburg and getting on all right, but I had bigger ambitions. My particular field of interest is litigation. I knew A&O was expanding its Litigation team, so I contacted the partner, Gerard Rudolph, and asked if I could complete my training with A&O. Happily, he agreed to it.

I joined in February 2020, before the world knew about the devastating impact of Covid-19. I worked in the office for six weeks before lockdown was announced and we were all told to go home. It was remarkable how quickly A&O adapted to everyone working from home. They provided me with extra monitors and assistance with IT to make sure I could work efficiently and seamlessly, using A&O’s various systems.

It was helpful to have spent a few weeks in the office. I was inducted, got to know the working processes, and, of course, met everybody I needed to. I was well set on my training path.

During lockdown, I felt connected with the firm, which, of course, was absolutely critical. There were weekly virtual catch-ups, but more than this, we had an ‘open line’ policy – the virtual equivalent of an ‘open door’ policy in the office – which meant I always felt able to contact my bosses and partners, no matter how senior, if ever I had questions or needed help. When I did make use of the open line, I made sure that I was well prepared with my questions, and had good reasons for asking them.

As one of the youngest members of the department, which has about 19 people, I found this particularly helpful. My seniors were great, and I was always impressed that they made time for me. I’ve also got to know many other colleagues through social events and fun events, such as virtual quiz nights.

Lockdown certainly didn’t have a negative impact on workflow. I was busy right from the day I joined, working and assisting on a number of arbitrations, cross-border work and construction disputes. On one case involving a wind farm in central Africa, I was assisting one of the counsel with draft documents going back and forth through the early hours of the morning as we finalised time-critical advice for our clients. This has all been new and enjoyable and precisely why I chose to work for a global law firm.

Nevertheless, there have been drawbacks with working remotely. I wasn’t allowing myself time to switch off from work and found that I was on my laptop all the time, often without any breaks. I’ve learned to be more disciplined; now I take regular screen breaks during the working day and make time to exercise for an hour each day in the morning or evening.

Once we’re allowed to travel more freely, I hope to take advantage of A&O’s programme of international secondments. I’d love to spend time in another office. However, I’m taking things day by day. I know I have to earn my stripes and build my reputation.

I’m a firm believer that we’re a product of our community, and that places a obligation on us to give back to the community that has made us who we are. There is the philosophy of Ubuntu in African culture, which teaches us to assist our fellow man whenever we can. Before I joined A&O, I was active in community matters at Rhodes University, my alma mater. Although one of South Africa’s elite universities, Rhodes University is situated in a poor area of the Eastern Cape province.

As a student, I proposed a number of initiatives while serving under two student bodies. In 2015, I started a student mentorship programme, under which Rhodes law students tutored high school students in the neighbouring township of Joza. Then, in 2018, I championed a book drive, where Rhodes students could donate second-hand books (novels,
textbooks, study guides) all of which went to a local library in Joza. Having found my feet as a qualified professional, getting into pro bono and charity work is something I intend to do.

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Everyone had a global perspective

Qi Xie completed the U.S. summer associate programme before joining the London office in September 2021.

I was born in China and went to study in Massachusetts as a 17 year old. There, I studied maths and French, but I also took some classes in law, which got me thinking that this was something I might pursue as a career. In 2018, I started my first year at the University of Chicago Law School.

As a rising second-year student, I applied to the A&O U.S. summer associate programme. I had two reasons for wanting to do this in the London office: first, because I was interested in working for a truly international law firm, and second, because my boyfriend lived in Paris, and London would be closer to Paris than New York! When I interviewed for the programme, I was struck by the internationalism, which reinforced my choice. Everyone I met had a global perspective.

When I was accepted on to the summer associate programme, I was of course expecting to attend in person. But then, in March 2020, my visa was cancelled, and the whole programme switched to being online – due to Covid-19.

The programme, which was condensed into six weeks, worked very well; in fact I would say super smooth. It really tried to replicate the in-person experience. There were nice, small touches; for example, sending a fruit basket to my house, as well as providing me with the right IT equipment. I had a couple of technical problems early on, but someone was always on hand to solve them.

The internship also included some fun social aspects, including yoga and cooking classes, as well as a trivia competition. For a cocktail-making class, they actually sent me the shaker set!

The main thing was that I learned a huge amount. It was intensive: there were back-to-back sessions. I was involved in a major deal, a high-yield offering for a European entertainment company, as well as a research project in which I and another intern were asked to make a presentation at the end of the programme.

I was well mentored by a fourth-year qualified lawyer. I had daily calls with him to discuss the assignments, which I found helpful to deal with the moving pieces.

After completing the programme, I returned to my studies to do the third year of my degree course. I have also taken the New York Bar exams and expect to get the results in December 2021.

Thankfully, I impressed A&O enough during the programme to be offered a job. I joined A&O in September 2021 as a U.S. law clerk in the Corporate Finance department in London, focusing on capital markets deals. I chose this type of work because I like getting to the root of clients’ businesses, which you need to if you are going to advise them on major capital markets deals – whether they are raising debt, or issuing equity in one form or another.

I initially worked virtually when I joined the London office, going into the office more and more as it re-opened. The office feels huge: I’m still getting used to finding my way around.

It’s been great meeting the other first years as well as associates and partners in the group, most of whom I met virtually last summer but it definitely feels different meeting in person. Luckily, the group sits together so I never have to walk far to reach someone.

I’ve been busy right from the off, assisting with due diligence and backup tasks. There is flexibility to work from home, so I’ve been taking advantage of that on days when I have an early morning call, for example.

I’m also looking forward to exploring the Spitalfields market area during lunch breaks or after work.

Opportunities at A&O

If you’re considering a career change and a return to A&O, visit the A&O careers portal for opportunities across our global network.

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