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Aspiring lawyers divided over career in legal aid

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40% of students would not consider publicly funded work, new poll shows, as legal aid group launches survey to find out why

Students are divided over a career in legal aid, the results of a Legal Cheek poll have shown.

Four out of ten students that responded to our recent poll said they would not consider qualifying as a legal aid lawyer. Among some of the reasons they shared with us, a key concern appears to be money.

“With £18k of student debt by the time I graduate, I need to get onto a decent earning path!” one student responded to our poll which received over 770 votes, whilst another simply put, “Because I like money, mainly!”

The legal aid system is vastly underfunded — 2013 legislation dramatically slashed government spending on legal aid. It removed whole areas of practice from the scope of legal aid and cut legal aid lawyers’ fees.

Half of all legal advice centres have closed since LASPO’s introduction, recent government statistics have shown, with the Young Legal Aid Lawyers (YLAL) group recently warning: “the sector is on its knees”.

Keen to find out more about why students are motivated (or not) to pursue a career in legal aid, and upon discovering the average age of a legal aid lawyer is mid-fifties, the Legal Aid Practitioners Group (LAPG) has compiled an online survey, which can be completed here.

Have your say: The 2021 legal aid student survey

LAPG wants to hear from students about the barriers that exist and how legal aid work can be made more accessible. It’s also wanting to gather perspectives on whether legal education prepares students for legal aid work and how it can be improved for those seeking to enter the sector.

YLAL found in 2018 more than half of its members earned less than £25,000 a year, which is a fraction of the mega salaries law firms in the Square Mile pay their junior lawyers, as indicated by our Firms Most List. There are also known to be few training opportunities available in the legal aid sector and those there are, aren’t considered to be well paid.

“The current system as it stands today places a massive burden on legal aid lawyers, whose responsibilities are often extended to support beyond just the law, without the pay to match,” wrote one student respondent to our poll. “Until the legal aid system is reformed to increase accessibility and funding to the individual, it is no surprise that the number of legal aid lawyers is diminishing.”

Data from the LAPG survey will be analysed by leading academics over the summer and the findings published in the autumn. It follows another recent survey run by the group for legal aid practitioners and together, the data will provide a base to underpin policy work relating to legal aid provision in the future.

Take the 2021 legal aid student survey here.

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12 Comments

Mark

Deapite 40% of law students not considering legal aid work I suspect that a large proportion of 40% of law students will only ever be able to find work within legal aid firms. I suspect most students are unrealistic are about their prospects of success in training at Magic Circle, Silver Circle or US Firms. I say this as someone who trained at a Legal Aid firm

(15)(0)

Oxon (BCL)

Exactly. People need to realise that legal aid work is the best you can get with a degree from Durham and there’s nothing wrong with that at all. It’s respectable and you’re doing far more for the world than the rest of us in the private sector are.

(4)(41)

Anon

There’s a guy on here who really, really hates Durham

Bit odd

(29)(0)

BA (Oxon)

He’s an Oxon BCL who was rejected by Durham and a few Red-bricks, went to a former Poly and bagged a first in his undergrad law, then got on the BCL with a sheaf of extracurriculars and a few hardship tales.

Hasn’t he done well?

(4)(3)

Jax

Okay this is the psychological barrier that needs to be broken: 27k law degree and then 16k LPC. These students are not going to work in legal aid if their yearly salary is equivalent to their fees?

(1)(0)

Barbican

I considered a legal aid career very seriously, including undertaking mini-pupillages, work experience with criminal solicitors, and even Crown Court marshalling. When however, in due course, I was exposed to the financial reality I discounted it entirely. I went on to secure a training contract in a City law firm.

IN FAVOUR:

1. Genuine advocacy opportunities, and the ability to run one’s own cases.

2. For those to whom this appeals, ‘social justice’, etc.

AGAINST:

1. It is appallingly paid, with no prospects of improvement to pay or advancement
within the profession.

2. Perversely, the level of competition means that there are a surfeit of candidates applying for pupilage/training contracts, thus further rendering a career high risk. In other words, not only is the ‘prize’ (tenancy for barristers, NQ place for solicitors) of questionable value, there is a high risk of failing to even get one’s foot into the door at the pupilage/training contract stage.

The publicly-funded legal sector has been gutted over the last 20 years. For example, see this 2009 warning by Alex Deane of the reality of being a criminal barrister: https://www.lccsa.org.uk/crime-doesnt-pay

A decade later, this 2019 article by a newly-redundant criminal solicitor (more importantly, *read the comments* underneath), shows that the position had only worsened: https://www.lawgazette.co.uk/practice/young-legal-aid-lawyer-shares-pain-over-redundancy/5070734.article.

Even more recently, in May 2021, Derek Sweeting QC, chair of the Bar Council, warned: ‘There are far too many people doing bar courses and paying a great deal of money when the attrition rate… is so high. I can’t think of many other instances where you would train with such a low prospect of success. I don’t think the idea that we should have a vast pool for some sort of diversity reason is a good one. We need to be honest about how many people are likely to get pupillage.’ According to Bar Council figures, 3,301 candidates applied for just 246 positions via the pupillage gateway this year. https://www.lawgazette.co.uk/news-focus/news-focus-bar-no-end-to-justice-emergency/5108599.article

It is beyond stupid that anyone pursues a career in criminal law. It is palpably clear that (a) the sector is starved of funds; (b) decades ago there had been some very good years in which lots of people had made lots of money, but those days are over; and (c) the future is grim: the electorate loathe criminals, and post-Covid the UK state is as near to bankrupt as a state can be, so there will never be any incentive for the sector to be even adequately funded again, let alone funded to a level whereby it is attractive as a careers option.

Market forces, i.e. supply and demand, will not provide criminal lawyers. By definition, the client base are primarily failed criminals, i.e. they have both committed crimes, and have been caught. The only reliable revenue stream is therefore from central government, i.e. legal aid. That is constrained by the fact that most of the tax-paying public loathe criminals. That therefore limits the extent to which legal aid can be increased.

Singapore has the same issue. They have created a subsidised law degree, designed to provide ‘social justice lawyers’ (my phrase, not theirs):

“Singapore University of Social Sciences is the only university in Singapore dedicated to working adults, allowing them to pursue lifelong learning and higher education while balancing career, family and social responsibilities. The primary focus of the University School of Law is to train and produce lawyers for the practice of law in Singapore particularly in the areas of Criminal Law and Family Law. This is part of the national effort to meet the need for lawyers in the areas of Criminal Law and Family Law. Currently, there is a gap in the supply in terms of well-trained lawyers for these areas of law. Traditionally, lawyers tend to gravitate to the commercial areas of law thus leaving a gap in Criminal Law and Family Law areas. From the perspective of our society, this is a concern we need to address. Singapore University of Social Sciences School of Law seeks to address this shortfall.”

https://www.suss.edu.sg/programmes/detail/bachelor-of-laws-lawllb

SUGGESTIONS:

1. Subsidised training pathway, with a requirement to work in criminal law as pay-back. If the UK is to develop junior criminal lawyers, it will need to create a similar subsidised qualification path similar to Singapore’s. This could be tied in to a requirement to work for, e.g. CPS or the Criminal Defence Service (if that still exists). In a era of immense financial challenges to the public purse, this may however be an insurmountable barrier.

2. Reorganise the pupillage system so that pupillages are *only* offered to people *before* they begin the BPTC. Presently, the system incentivises thousands of hopeless candidates to squander their money, and jam up the system. If pupillages were only offered (by virtue of regulatory fiat by the BSB) to those yet to undertake the BPTC, then the phenomenon of thousands of doomed BPTC graduates rendering the criminal law far too risk a path for competent candidates would be mitigated.

3. Fund training contracts, with the requirement that people work in the legal aid sector for ‘x’ years post-qualification. Or, vastly expand the Criminal Defence Service to entirely replace the current system, and create a ‘graduate entry pipeline’ which would effectively be a subsidised training contract with payback requirement.

Unfortunately, I suspect that the legal aid sector is doomed to slowly wither away, and become ever more like the personal injury sector: predominantly staffed by underqualified paralegals, badly supervised by a limited number of commercially-minded lawyers who are simply focused on P&L and EBITDA, rather than actually delivering competent legal services. At the high end, this shouldn’t be a problem because a small % of law firms and barristers will develop white collar/fraud practices, and thereby ensure that well-heeled/well-insured company directors et al will get competent representation. The majority of the population are probably in trouble, though (albeit if CPS quality deteriorates further too, then perhaps more defendants will get away with it!).

(27)(1)

Friday

“Unfortunately, I suspect that the legal aid sector is doomed to slowly wither away, and become ever more like the personal injury sector: predominantly staffed by underqualified paralegals, badly supervised by a limited number of commercially-minded lawyers who are simply focused on P&L and EBITDA, rather than actually delivering competent legal services. At the high end, this shouldn’t be a problem because a small % of law firms and barristers will develop white collar/fraud practices, and thereby ensure that well-heeled/well-insured company directors et al will get competent representation. The majority of the population are probably in trouble, though (albeit if CPS quality deteriorates further too, then perhaps more defendants will get away with it!).”

For someone who did not ultimately pursue a career in criminal law, this is remarkably astute commentary and is exactly what I see every day.

That being said, I do enjoy criminal practice and have no regrets. All public sector jobs have been shat on in recent years. There’s nothing particularly special about legal aid lawyers in my opinion.

Pay has almost completely detached itself from productivity in liberal democracies in recent decades. We are accomplishing more and not being compensated for it. The lot of legal aid lawyers will only change when that broader societal change comes. No one wants a criminal hack out-earning other workers. But if everyone was earning twice what they are today, I doubt a similar payrise for lawyers would be sniffed at. People don’t want their tax money going to criminals because they themselves feel insecure and unwealthy.

(0)(0)

Impecunious Peon

I did a spell doing pro bono advice domestic violence sufferers after my LPC and found it really fulfilling, so I can really see why people would want to work in legal aid. Sadly the terrible pay means that it is often the preserve of people who don’t really need the money.

Many of us without wealthy parents/partners can’t really afford to contemplate a practice area where you pull in £22,000 a year after seven years call. And not everyone who rejects Legal Aid is a gready City boy. Most lawyers make somewhere between those extremes and are just trying to pay the mortgage etc, like everyone else.

(5)(0)

ex legal aid lawyer

I worked in legal aid for over 5 years. Hugely rewarding work, but the financial reality of life has to kick in. Its fine earning 20-30K as a young paralegal, but that is not sustainable when add mortgage and kid into the equation on top of debts of training.
As others have said, the earning ceiling in legal aid makes it unrealistic as a long-term prospect. The saddest thing is that a lot of legal aid firms end up training and producing excellent lawyers who then see their value and move into private.

(7)(0)

Mr. Poopoos

I’ve heard it said that it’s a hobby for those who are independently wealthy or who have a high-earning spouse.

It’s true.

I have a standard of living that’s comparable to some of the people I represent, only they seem to have more free time in their lives.

(3)(0)

Carpe Jugulum

I am a Barrister who does mainly legal aid work (2017 call). I am not Independently wealthy and still manage to have a great lifestyle and do a job I love. Its not an easy option, to earn well you have to get good really quickly. It really isn’t all doom and gloom. If you are passionate about actually getting being in court every day and practice the skill of advocacy then you will love it.

(1)(0)

Mr Crapulous

But what does your husband/wife/partner/lover/
friend-with-benefits/
sugardaddy/mommy do?

(0)(0)

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