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Stop chasing the pot of gold: there’s no future for wannabe criminal lawyers

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You’ll earn more money working down the pub, admits top solicitor

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Stop chasing your criminal law dreams: people who want to help the community just aren’t valued any more.

It’s sad advice, but it’s said with good intentions, and by two people that really know what they’re talking about.

The warning comes from the men at the top of Edward Fail, Bradshaw & Waterson (EFBW) — a top-tier London criminal law firm that has been hit hard by the government’s public funding shake up.

EFBW hit the headlines this month when it was revealed that it had failed in one of its duty contract bids because of a painstakingly basic transcription error by the Legal Aid Agency.

This key government contract is a lawyer’s ticket to doing duty solicitor work, and without it a firm cannot survive for long. The government has slashed the number of contracts available from 1,600 to 527, which meant that law firms had to bid for a chance to be one of the lucky few.

So, when EFBW found out they’d missed getting a contract that should have been awarded to them, they were unsurprisingly devastated.

Legal Cheek went to meet with Edward Preston and Paul Harris, both partners at the Tower Hamlets-based firm, to find out what this means not only for them, but also for the future of the profession.

The picture is bleak.

Years of legal aid cuts and reforms under the lord chancellorship of hate-figure Chris Grayling have reshaped the profession beyond recognition. Controversy over the legal aid procurement process is yet another blow in what’s been a tough couple of years.

Preston told us:

The government are in the process of mucking up not just the NHS, but the probation, police and prison service.

The situation is critical, but it’s not easy to rally public compassion. Speaking in the wake of the junior doctors’ strike, Harris commented:

Doctors definitely get more sympathy than lawyers… But people don’t realise just how bad the [criminal justice] system is until they are involved in it, and by then it’s too late.

When asked about lawyers’ money-hungry stereotype, Preston quipped:

All this fat-cat nonsense: we’re skinny cats.

Before Harris added:

Starving cats.

This is because cases are taken up on a fixed-fee basis, which means the number of hours spent preparing a case does not affect the level of remuneration. Hour by hour, wages can dip well below minimum wage. Preston went as far as to say:

I’d earn more money working in the pub.

So when asked if they would advise a young lawyer to join a criminal law firm, it’s unsurprising that the answer was a resounding no.

Unlike when both men started up their careers, there is simply no viable future for the profession any more. Preston paints a particularly dismal picture:

You’re subject to fat-cat abuse, bureaucracy and red tape. There’s a constant set of hoops in front of you. It’s a life of stress and strain.

Harris had a similar message:

If you want to go into this, you have to be absolutely committed and passionate about this kind of work. I don’t want to discourage people who genuinely want to work to help their communities, but the hard reality is that the level of pay and prospects have been reducing for the past 10-15 years.

More worrying still is that this isn’t just a criminal law problem — these headaches taint many areas of community-orientated legal practice, family law being a particularly pertinent example.

So why, if law firms are stretched to their limits, has the number of law school places skyrocketed by over 5,000 since 2007?

Preston raises the very same question. He said:

Legal education has become a commercial business. Thousands of students are churned out year on year and there are no jobs. There are people out there chasing a dream, but there’s no pot of gold out there for them.

In the midst of this legal aid procurement process fiasco, Preston and Harris’s responses are not surprising. What is less predictable is what this all means for existing firms, like EFBW, and their lawyers.

And that’s the worst bit of this all — they simply do not know.

How, Harris asks, can you possibly plan for the future when there are lingering uncertainties about how much longer the firm can survive? He commented:

I just want to get on with some work, without this lurking in the background.

The next weeks and months will be pivotal. A court hearing is scheduled for the end of the month, which should hopefully make clearer EFBW’s position. There is some hope that Justice Secretary Michael Gove can unpick the catastrophic policies adopted by his predecessor, as we’re already starting to see with developments such as the scrapping of the criminal courts charge. A political U-turn could be just days away.

It would no doubt be an indefensible shame if what Harris terms a “basic and incompetent error” led to the demise of such a well-established and well-meaning firm.