Law students are virtually barred from pursuing a career in legal aid anymore, unless they’re rich

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By Katie King on

74% say they’ve been put off the sector, I was one of them

Legal aid and the City have always been poles apart. The former has never had the wealth, flashiness and prestige of the latter and has, therefore, never been the preserve of Zone 1 apartment-chasing law graduates. But 2012 saw public funding savaged. Now, practice areas like housing, immigration, crime and family are increasingly under-resourced and increasingly unattractive to potential employees.

In 2012, I had just finished my A-levels and was moving on to study for my LLB. Naïve to the world of graduate recruitment budgets and growing frustrated with City firms’ dominance of careers’ fairs, networking events, interview sessions, talks and open days, I shunned it all in the knowledge that one day I’d be a successful legal aid lawyer.

Work experience placements, decent grades and a desire to do something that didn’t involve making rich people even richer made me a good candidate, I thought. But as legal aid cuts took hold, my eyes began to turn.

During my LLB, compared to the years before I started, the criminal and other legal aid lawyers I was meeting seemed more fatalistic about their jobs. When I asked one uniquely cheerful solicitor what he’d say to someone thinking of going into criminal practice, he chuckled before confiding: “don’t”. Everyone just seemed sadder.

I, like most politicians these days, resisted the opinions of experts and plodded on with work experience placements and more. But as more people said ‘don’t do it’, I realised this wasn’t an anti-Katie conspiracy but valuable advice I should be following.

Looking ahead I realised that without a cushion of family wealth or a rich partner to help me self fund the Legal Practice Course (LPC), I’d have found myself in debt before I’d even started what was set to be an extremely badly paid training contract and subsequent career. More financial problems come when attempting to build a lasting career out of what increasingly has come to resemble a hobby. And let’s not even get started on London housing prices.

This — coupled with some horrendous stories about pregnant solicitors being kicked in the stomach by clients and being spat at during police station night shifts — made the choice subjectively difficult but objectively clear.

Waving goodbye to a perhaps foolishly-held childhood dream is less painful than it is disorientating. Though I knew I didn’t want to train in legal aid law I paralegalled for a bit at a family law firm. It was a good time-limited experience. Every day was a fight against photocopiers that don’t work, desks stacked with coffee-stained papers, subject matter you can’t leave behind at work and Legal Aid Agency phone call wait times. Nothing goes smoothly.

In the heyday of my legal aid dream, it would have taken a lot to deter me from the job. But there was a lot to deter me from the job. I’m unsurprised, therefore, that a Legal Cheek Twitter poll shows three quarters of law students have been put off pursuing a career in legal aid in recent years, too.

That still leaves a significant minority of justice-hungry law students clinging for dear life to the words of anonymous advocate the Secret Barrister, who told me:

I’d urge law students not to be deterred from publicly funded work. The current underfunding of legal aid is simply not sustainable, and I have a perhaps naïve faith that something is going to give in the next few years. But either way, there will always be people who need access to good legal aid lawyers. And I would always advise that we fight for legal aid rather than flee.

This rallying call has prompted me to take stock of the decision I made to pack in the quest for legal aid lawyer life. Did I give up too soon? Did I let myself down by not persevering with a cause I truly believed in? Would I be happier now had I kept going?

Hearing from Legal Cheek reader and English graduate Emily reassured me my position wasn’t unique. Once fiercely committed to the cause, while working at Citizens Advice she concedes:

I watched the entire legal aid division of Citizens Advice disappear, and suddenly callers were increasingly being referred to other agencies or for self-help. It became increasingly obvious to me that I was not going to be able to sustain a career in that area as a solicitor, and so I got a job in the private client department of a local firm and I’ve been there for two years now.

It’s hard to regret my albeit reluctant step back from legal aid practice when so many others share my sentiment. One Legal Cheek commenter said: “As much as I love the idea and understand the necessity of legal aid, I am not going to starve to serve the good.” Another, commenting as ‘Go to the City’, admitted: “Having been a paralegal for an eternity I finally got a training contract in a legal aid firm and I’m paid £17,000. Living away from home in London on that wage is tough. When I qualify I’m going to have a serious rethink about my career.”

Working in family, housing and the like will reward you in many ways. The sense of giving back to the community and the exciting variety of the job are commonly cited among legal aid lawyers. What it won’t reward you with is predictability, sustainability or — legal aid’s Achilles’ heel no doubt — a comfortable life that enables you to live independently of the financial support of others. The choice is yours — I made mine.

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