A Q&A with Laura Williams, trainee at South West London Law Centres
South West London Law Centres is a community-based law centre and registered charity. Established in 1974 and working across six South West London boroughs (Croydon, Kingston, Richmond, Merton, Sutton and Wandsworth), SWLLC helps people to understand and enforce their legal rights. Every year, SWLLC help thousands of people from all walks of life who would otherwise be unable to afford the services of a lawyer. We hear from Laura Williams, a trainee solicitor at SWLLC, to find out what life is really like on the frontline of social welfare law.
My experience so far as a trainee has proved to be a steep learning curve.
I was treated as a fee earner from the start of my training contract which involved me taking responsibility for cases, dealing with my own clients, attending court and consistently learning and developing, whilst under supervision.
What have been the best moments so far?
I assisted a client with a community care case where the client and her nine month old son, a British citizen, were being supported by Social Services (SS) under s17 of the Children Act. They were financially reliant on SS as the mother had no immigration status, but had an application pending with the Home Office. SS were only providing the mother with £20 per week worth of Asda vouchers. The client was struggling to provide for her child and she often could not afford food for herself. After threatening judicial review proceedings, I managed to get SS to increase the financial support to £73.78 per week, which was the minimum amount set by case law.
In another case I had a possession claim and counterclaim for disrepair case where the client had numerous complex mental health issues. The client’s flat was in a state of disrepair, including water ingress to the bathroom ceiling which caused part of the ceiling to collapse. I was able to argue at court that the claim should be struck out, and the client received £4,000 damages for the counterclaim which was used in part to offset against the rent arrears. This cleared the arrears and left the client with some additional funds for personal use.
What has been most challenging moment so far?
Attending the Housing Court Duty Scheme (HCDS) as duty solicitor at Croydon and Wandsworth County Courts was by far the most challenging part of my training contract. The HCDS provides last minute help for people facing eviction or repossession. Initially, I found advocacy to be extremely daunting and I did not enjoy it one bit. I think it’s fair to say advocacy is not my favourite part of law and I am not a natural public speaker, due to being a bit on the shy side.
However, after a number of sessions of shadowing I was thrown in at the deep end, which I now realise was the best way to learn. I feel that I have rapidly improved my advocacy and negotiation skills through having an extremely short amount (five to ten minutes) of time before each hearing to see a client, identify the key and important bits of information, negotiate with the opponent and formulate the arguments for the client’s defence, I have definitely learnt how to think on my feet! I have now got to the stage where I have seen up to ten clients on a duty day.
Is it difficult managing a caseload of three different areas of law?
Working across three training seats has its challenge. Initially it was quite overwhelming, as prior to starting my training contract I had no experience in housing, community care or welfare benefits; my main experience was in immigration. I was therefore having to learn about each of the areas of law from scratch at the same time as I went along and this involved me doing a certain amount of reading in my free time.
However, I do enjoy carrying out research and expanding my knowledge. It is also useful as some clients have community care issues as well as housing issues which means I am able to integrate the different areas of law, subject to the legal issues involved in any given case.
Have there been any surprises during your training contract?
Six months into my training contract I was asked to run a training session on housing law for lawyers from Brown Rudnick LLP, who volunteer at SWLLC’s evening pro bono clinics. Brown Rudnick is a leading international law firm, and this was quite a nerve-racking experience as I had only been working in housing for a relatively short period of time. Being the bookworm that I am, I fully researched the areas of law they wanted covering and prepared in depth training notes and a PowerPoint presentation. Taking questions from one of the partners of the firm was also a bit terrifying. Overall the training was well received and this experience significantly increased my confidence.
What is the social life like at the law centre for a trainee?
I attended a legal awards ceremony recently where our housing team was shortlisted for Housing Team of the Year 2016. This was a fancy occasion with a three-course meal. Though it was a little disheartening when we did not win our category, it was a great achievement for us to have been shortlisted. I also attended the Young Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year awards as our immigration solicitor, Rajitha Kumar, was nominated for Children’s Rights Lawyer of the Year, which was also a fantastic achievement. I am grateful that I was given the opportunity to attend these events representing the law centre.
SWLLC is seeking a Social Welfare Law Trainee as part of the Justice First Fellowship scheme run by The Legal Education Foundation. Further details are here and applications are open until Tuesday 20 September.