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

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By Ollie Persey on

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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