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Young Legal Aid Lawyers: We cannot argue working in legal aid isn’t difficult, but don’t quit

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Group issues rallying cry to students, in a response to an article by Legal Cheek’s Katie King

Legal Cheek features editor Katie King’s article, ‘Law students are virtually barred from pursuing a career in legal aid anymore, unless they’re rich’, was a disheartening read.

It was hard to disagree with much of it. Research by Young Legal Aid Lawyers (YLAL) supports many of her conclusions. Funding cuts by successive governments have made it financially challenging to forge a career in the legal aid sector. YLAL will launch its latest social mobility and diversity report this November. From surveying its 2,800 members, YLAL found that:

  • Almost eight out of ten young legal aid lawyers (79%) had debt exceeding £20,000;
  • One in four respondents were earning £15,000 or less per annum;
  • Almost nine out of ten respondents (87%) were earning £25,000 or less;
  • Almost three quarters of respondents (74%) had undertaken unpaid legal work experience;
  • Almost one third of respondents (29%) had used family connections to secure paid or unpaid work experience;
  • Almost nine out of ten respondents (86%) believed there should be a minimum salary for trainee solicitors;
  • Young legal aid lawyers identified the biggest professional challenges as pay (34%), stress (21%), workload (11%) and long hours (8%).

Grim reading.

The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has released its draft assessment specification for the proposed Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE), which moves to remove civil legal aid subjects from the syllabus. The draft makes clear that civil legal aid areas (e.g. housing, family, immigration) will no longer be covered either as a core subject or as an option. The specification confirms that aspiring solicitors will complete assessments in commercial property, business, wills and trusts, and criminal law only. The reason behind this is that since the significant cuts to legal aid there are fewer graduates entering the profession.

Though this may be commercially sensible, YLAL believes it is extremely damaging to the continuation, protection and improvement of the legal aid sector. Not only does its removal from the syllabus appear to show that the SRA does not see it as a respected, vital, or even viable area of law but it is also likely to serve to further discourage students from entering the profession. In the current climate, many courses focus overwhelmingly on private client and commercial law already, resulting in many students not knowing about legal aid, not being able to get adequate advice on entry into the sector, or not seeing it as a viable option for a career. This situation can only get worse under the SRA’s proposals, which essentially wipe legal aid work off the map.

It is vital that the most talented people from all walks of life go into the legal aid sector.

First, this is because the stakes in legal aid cases are often very high; it is not uncommon for vulnerable individuals to risk serious and irreversible harm if the correct legal action is not taken. Second, the issues involved can be factually and legally complex, such that highly able lawyers are needed to manage them. Finally, there is an important point about fairness. The most vulnerable people in the justice system should not have to settle for substandard representation.

We cannot argue that training in, working in and building a career in legal aid is not difficult. It almost certainly is; particularly for young lawyers starting out since the financial crash and the cuts. Wages are low, debts are high. Pressure and stress at work is also increased, as we have seen from the YLAL social mobility and diversity survey results.

Clients are being turned away as their problem no longer comes within the scope of legal aid. This in turn is putting pressure on law centres and legal advice agencies who are struggling to survive, let alone fund training for new legal aid lawyers.

We understand that recruiting new entrants to the profession and ensuring that expertise is passed on is critical. We also accept that remuneration is low in this area compared to the work and commitment required, but we say there are reasons to be positive and we must work for change. Don’t quit. Get proactive.

There are opportunities out there.

It may be difficult, but it is possible for people of limited means from any background to pursue a career in legal aid.

In 2014, the first cohort of Justice First Fellows (JFFs) started their training contracts at social welfare law firms and NGOs. JFFs are funded by The Legal Education Foundation to get people from diverse backgrounds into social welfare law. Though the scheme is expanding, with only three pupillages and 15 training contracts available nationwide this year, and with the majority of the roles being based in London, the job of finding a training contract to apply for within the sector remains difficult. YLAL also has a ‘jobs & opps’ page that is regularly updated with the latest legal aid career opportunities.

There are also opportunities for those still at university. In the absence of readily available legal advice, law clinics within universities are growing in number and scope. These clinics often take on complex, interesting, and socially valuable cases which are in areas of law that no longer attract legal aid. Though they do not plug the gap by any stretch they do provide a partial response to the growing number of advice deserts. They also allow students to see another side to the legal profession.

And, of course, you could join YLAL.

The group was formed in 2005 and now has over 2,800 members. Our members include students, paralegals, trainee solicitors, pupil barristers, and qualified junior lawyers. We are united by a belief that the provision of good quality publicly funded legal help is essential to protecting the interests of the vulnerable in society and upholding the rule of law. When you join, for free, you’ll be paired up with a young legal aid lawyer mentor, who will help you navigate the obstacles highlighted by Katie in her previous article. We are fighting to reverse legal aid cuts — you can be a part of that.

Ollie Persey is training to be a legal aid barrister through a Justice First Fellowship at the Public Law Project and is a YLAL committee member.

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14 Comments

Not Amused

It is woefully irresponsible to incite innocent young people to damn their lives in this way.

The argument is not that children from disadvantaged backgrounds *cannot* be legal aid lawyers. The argument is that they *should not* be; because as everyone recognises, it is woefully underpaid and has almost no prospects of improving.

This is a situation which needs addressing. But until it is addressed it just is not right to incite innocent young people to plunge head first in to this mess. Moreover, if we are honest, part of the problem has been the willingness of legal aid fanatics to be martyred in this way – allowing governments of both parties to exploit them for years. Stop propping up this failing scheme. Don’t throw your life away is my advice.

There is a line between a noble martyr and a hopeless fool, but it can be very difficult to define.

Anonymous

Part of the problem is that we are not, as a group, talking honestly about what people earn. Without that information, people think they will just ‘manage’ somehow. Being told ‘don’t do crime’ (or the equivalent) doesn’t have the same impact as saying (for example) in 5 years time you’ll be on 25K.

Actual numbers (even rough ones) would probably 1) get many young people to think far more seriously about their career and choices (read: sacrifices) ahead and 2) put low pay on the agenda, use it to fight the ‘fat cat’ arguent etc.

The only young people (under 30) I know who work in legal aid either live with their parents or their parents pay their rent and/or they have a partner who helps financially. That’s it. There are almost none who manage (at least in London) to cover all their expenses on their own, because it’s near-impossible to do so.

Even with financial help, many make sacrifices for their chosen career. Arguably, that’s their choice and their responsibility. However, the problem is that, at the start of hteir careers, young people have no clue what sacrifices they will have to make and/or do not have a full appreciation of what this means. After all, how can they?! They have zero information to go on, except ‘you’ll be poor’. That’s just not good enough.

Legal organisations would do better to help the future generation of lawyers if they teamed up with practitioners and produced some concrete answers as to earnings.

Anonymous

Apologies for the typos, which could be solved if LC had an edit button *sigh*

Anonymous

A life of the client who winds up inside the prison would probably be a fair bit easier than the life of the legal aid lawyer trying to keep clients out.

Massingbird

For once I agree with not amused.

There are some signs of a will to bolster legal aid, but the prospects of a budget increase under the current government are low. Even if labour were to get in I doubt they would increase the budget significantly above what it is now.

Anonymous

You can fight to reverse legal aid cuts all you like. Even if they go back to 2008 levels, you’ll still be lucky to earn more than £50k in London in a legal-aid defence practice.

Corporate lyfeeeeer

Still rich, still don’t want to work in legal aid.

Optimist of counsel

I do wonder whether some Legal Aid firms are screwing their employees over and allowing the poverty-pay to continue with a perception that everyone is skint.

I earn £50K + travel doing a mix of Mags and Crown Court Legal Aid work as in-house criminal counsel at a small non-London high-street firm with no police station or out-of-hours work.

I know some in-house counsel at other firms doing solely Crown Court work on £80K+ but also some at other firms being screwed over on £25K, also doing solely Crown Court.

My advice: shop around, ask for a pay-rise if you think you’re pulling in the bills, and don’t be afraid to jump ship for a better firm. References are less important after a few years as you can point to results as an indication of your skills.

Don’t be put off, youngsters!

Anonymous

More of these types of comments, please!

Anonymous

The system is at the state it is because of people like me who continue to work in it and prop it up, partly out of goodwill but mainly because, at my stage in life, I feel unable to change career so I’m stuck with it. Would I advise anybody to work in legal aid now? Absolutely not and the more people who listen to that advice, the more chance there will be of the politicians doing something about it. Whilst there are idiots like me willing to continue to do the work for less and less money every year, why should things change?

Anonymous

What do you do and how much do you earn?

You may be able to get a better deal elsewhere.

If given an interview, tell them what you are “looking for” salary wise, rather than disclosing your existing salary to them.

When I was asked about my existing pay, I told them what my current billings were and what salary I was now looking for. It had the desired effect as I got the job and the salary.

Legal beagle

As a junior solicitor who has recently jumped ship from legal aid into privately funded work I would advise any graduate against qualifying into legal aid. It is a thankless task and if people are still prepared to work in it in its current state then the government will not change.

It is a shame because many enthusiastic graduate such as I become disillusioned and many of my contemporaries retrained upon qualification into a bettered paid and less stressful area.

Anonymous

I work as a barrister in civil legal aid outside London. Getting through BPTC, a year paralegalling and pupillage was very tough financially but by my second tax return after finishing pupillage I was reporting earnings (after deducting chambers and other business expenses) of £37,000. That would be a decent enough income in London; elsewhere that’s giving you a good quality of life. I also take at least 6 weeks off a year and spend a lot of time working from home, as I continue to see my earnings increase. If you have the flexibility to move outside London it’s a good option – legal aid practice areas aren’t nearly as geographically limited as others.

Legal aid peasant, that needs experience to get experience to get a paying job

I don’t think anyone argued you couldn’t, but it if you want to work in legal aid you better be prepared to live with your parents into your 30’s. Currently I am doing unpaid paralegal work at a criminal firm (just finished the LPC) to get police station qualified. Then I will earn some money hopefully, but it’s not guaranteed.

I’d also like to see a social background (one that include parents income and if you received free school meals) of the justice first fellowship intake. Just from looking at the website, they look like they come from backgrounds where money wasn’t an issue. This is true of the entire legal profession, but very disappointing that it would also apply in legal aid.

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