I left legal aid due to the low pay – I could not recommend this career to working class students

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I recently left the legal aid profession due to financial concerns. I worked in this field for three years, firstly as a paralegal and then as a trainee solicitor. I handled my own busy caseload consisting of crime, police actions, human rights and civil liberties cases. Due to the low pay, I worked a second job too: twice a week, my working day would not end until 10pm. I sometimes worked weekends too.

Most of my clients suffered from mental illness or were dealing with very difficult circumstances. The cases I found most challenging to deal with were cases involving deaths in custody, as you saw the impact on the family and their grief, but you had to manage their expectations and prepare them for a very long road to getting answers and justice. Some of these cases go on for years, and it is especially difficult to watch a family go through so much and jump over so many hurdles before finding out what happened to their loved ones. Other cases I found challenging were cases of outright racism or violence towards vulnerable clients, particularly if I had to watch footage of the incidents.

I have now left the legal aid profession and moved to a corporate law firm due to financial concerns and instability. I am unable to live with my parents rent-free and I am financially responsible not just for myself but also for my parents and family who are working class, first generation immigrants to the UK. I was simply unable to cope with this financial responsibility on a legal aid salary.

I started off my legal career on £19,000 as a paralegal and had to push for this to go up to £21,000/£22,000 during my training contract. It was impossible for me to live on £19,000 in London and support myself and my family, so I have taken on various second jobs during my time in legal aid – I have worked as a private tutor and as a waitress alongside my full time job. To put this into perspective, I was earning more during my student job throughout my A Levels and university.

My student job led to a management job immediately after I graduated from university, which paid £32,000. Pursuing a career in legal aid involved taking a pay cut of over £10,000, as well as earning less than I made while I was a student aged 17/18. During the entire time I was in legal aid, I felt so worried about how I was going to support myself and my family that I often found it difficult to breathe or sleep. I knew I couldn’t go on like this – I remember thinking that I did not work this hard throughout school, college and university to achieve top grades so I could end up poorer than my parents, who never had the same opportunities in life as I have had.

It was my experience of growing up in one of the most deprived and working class areas of London which motivated me to go into a career in law in the first place – I wanted to represent the people whose rights I saw being violated as I was growing up. Yet sadly, I can no longer recommend this career path to students from working class backgrounds, or anyone who does not have a family who can afford to financially support them. My previous firm attended various events and functions aimed at encouraging a more diverse range of applicants in the legal aid sector, but I never took part – I could not stand in front of a crowd of young students from poorer backgrounds and tell them to enter this profession, knowing that they will never be able to afford a decent home to rent (let alone buy) or a decent life with this career if they did not have parents who could afford to support them. Sadly, I think this will deter many bright, talented people from entering this profession and working with clients who could benefit from their experience so much.

I now work in a corporate firm where my salary upon qualification will be just under £60,000. I feel a huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders and I am sleeping better as a result. However, I was terribly sad to have to leave my clients. I am trying to take on more pro bono work at my new firm so I am still able to help those less fortunate, which was my sole motivation for undertaking a law degree and entering the legal profession in the first place.

I am worried that legal aid cuts mean that those who are the most vulnerable will not be able to access a lawyer to secure their rights. Rights are worthless if they cannot be enforced.

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I am a trainee solicitor earning £16,000 a year

icon_14633I am a trainee solicitor earning £16,000 a year. I recently moved from a paralegal role at a large commercial law firm to become a trainee at a small high street firm, doing predominantly legal aid work.

As a paralegal, I had long-term prospects of generous pay and an abundance of supervisors to turn to for assistance. I now run my own case load, straddle various areas of law (currently probate, family and housing) and am very much left in charge of my own training.

I attend court for housing clients, attend local authority offices for child protection conferences and see probate clients on home visits or in the office. I spend the rest of my time drafting documents and undertaking research. Solicitors across the firm hand me tasks to complete and I have only recently learnt to say no. No matter how much I want to be useful, it’s not possible to work full-time, and do a good job, for three different departments!

I lead a simple life – I rent a room in a shared house in a relatively cheap part of the country. I am looking to get on the property ladder but will struggle to get a mortgage based on my salary of £16,000 per year. I am also learning how to drive and will need to make spending cuts in order to maintain a car for my job.

I was relieved when the Court of Appeal ruled that the evidence requirements which denied victims of domestic violence access to legal aid were unlawful. If there are to be future cuts in public spending, is there a risk that we will need to mount further challenges through the courts in order to protect our clients’ fundamental right to legal advice?

Legal aid cuts have left Law Centres struggling to keep our doors open

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I’m a housing solicitor for a busy London Law Centre. I have volunteered, trained with and qualified with my organisation, and financial difficulties have never been too far away from our door.

Legal aid cuts have left organisations such as mine struggling just to keep our doors open day-to-day. The future for my Law Centre and indeed our movement has never been in so much danger from government cuts.

I’m contracted to work a 37.5 hour week, but in practice most of us work through our lunch, stay late and either take work home or work at the weekends. Most days we are seeing new clients (about homelessness, disrepair, or unlawful evictions), complying with court directions, representing people on the county court duty scheme, and making applications to the Legal Aid Agency. Our offices are cramped, our furniture second-hand and interview space is always at a premium.

In my experience staff are overworked, anxious about the future but also utterly dedicated to their clients and our work. We fight our clients’ corner because we are their best and probably only chance to obtain access to justice and enforce their legal rights. The burden of holding your clients’ hopes in your hands is a heavy one and every day solicitors are faced with little frustrations such as creaking IT systems, faulty photocopiers, the Legal Aid Agency’s endless pedantry/bureaucracy and a lack of administrative support.  As a legal aid lawyer the fate of your entire organisation often falls on your hands alone and with that knowledge comes added work pressure.

Law Centre salaries do not keep up with inflation and our pay does not really change year to year. Each year solicitors stay because they care about the work and their clients but in doing so they sometimes sacrifice their health and their dreams of long term financial security. I do not envy my other lawyer friends who earn far greater sums in the city, I love my work, but I’d be lying if I said I did not worry about what the future holds for myself and the Law Centres movement in general.

Access to justice and the rule of law are readily bandied about by political parties but if we care about these concepts then there needs to be the political will to provide proper financial support for our under-resourced legal aid system.

I have witnessed several happy endings

 

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I am a paralegal working in court of protection, health and welfare litigation. I earn £19,000.

In this area of law, you are working for those who are assessed as lacking mental capacity in respect of a particular decision, this can be in relation to their care or where they live. Often they are deprived of their liberty, meaning they are under constant supervision and control and cannot leave their place of residence by themselves.

I have visited an elderly lady with dementia, who had escaped from her care home twice and an autistic gentleman with learning difficulties, who likes to wear women’s clothes and wanted to leave his residential placement to live in a hostel or a flat with lots of girls. I have visited a 31 year old who was in a car accident, aged 16, then 3 years later diagnosed with primary progressive MS, he was living miles away from his family and young daughter. In the office I spend the majority of my time drafting court documents or completing legal aid applications and forms.

Since working here I have witnessed several happy endings, recently a 70 year old traveller was assessed as having capacity and was released from hospital, where he had been deprived of his liberty for three months. A court order was put in place to restrict contact, but allow it to continue for an elderly lady with dementia who was being emotionally and verbally abused by her son, since the order was put in place the son has abided by the contact regime and the lady is doing well.

Since I started working as a paralegal in this team there have been cuts to the rates that barristers can receive and the rates that we can pay experts instructed in these matters. This has dissuaded those experts and barristers for continuing to do work in this area.

In my opinion the cuts to their fees, prey on those with a  conscience, those who are willing to do the work for the person at the centre of the case, knowing that it may not be a financially sensible decision. Those who are in a position where they have to consider finances carefully or no longer wish to work for such a small amount in comparison to the volume of work, will no longer assist in these matters.

I work more than 12 hour days, and get £12,000 a year to work in criminal defence.

I am a 24 year old trainee solicitor working in crime. I get paid £12,000 and work over 12 hours days.

I arrive noun_33418_ccat work at 8am. Phone calls from clients start now and end about 10pm

At 9:30 I have a prison visit. I normally sit around for 1 hour whilst my clientis found.

At 11am I check my mail, usually legal aid forms or certificates around 5 per day. I have to telephone clients who have filled in forms incorrectly (a high proportion of illiterate /vulnerable / elderly clients who don’t understand what the forms are actually asking and a lot of time is spent explaining the client situation to the court).

I typically do some legal research,admin and billing throughout the day. Admin usually means lots of time on hold to, or chasing, the  Legal Aid Agency, the police or the local council.

If I have to go to court, I will finish there at 4:30. When the court lists come out, I have to  check that we are still covered. Inevitably, I find that things have been pulled or moved up at the eleventh hour.

At 5pm I have client and barrister meetings so that my clients don’t have to take time off work.

I leave the office anywhere between 6pm and 9pm. I am on call for 12 hour shifts between 9pm and 9am about four times a month.

I’m 24, living with my parents, earning £12,000. I have a car loan to pay off and have to have a car for my job. I have an LPC loan to pay off which is crippling. I can’t afford day to day living as once I’ve paid the loans and helped out with household expenses there’s £200 left.

I am worried about the cuts, not for my  own struggle, that is essentially a choice, but I wonder how many people they expect to help clients on a pro bono basis? Access to justice is being totally denied.

We are all poorer for the cuts

I am a 30 year-old Trainee Solicitor working in housing law. My salary is £18,590 pa.

My clients are mostly social housing tenants facing eviction, or are already homeless and seeking accommodation from the Council, or have problems of disrepair in their homes.

I don’t have a typical day as such. I always start before 9am and try to finish at 5.30pm, but normally this ends up being 6-6.30pm. Whether I have a lunch break depends on whether I have urgent work to do, such as threaten a local authority with judicial review for not helping a client who is on the streets. Because I run my own caseload I like to take ownership over the work and I will do whatever is needed to get the job done for the clients. It’s a real cliché but I don’t do the work for the money – I do it for the same reason I went into law, to help people who are, for one reason or another, unable to enforce their rights.

I am fortunate enough to have family who have paid for my LPC, and a partner who earns more than me (though still not a lot compared to our peers). Without both of those I can’t see how I could have afforded to go into law.

The gap between the perception of legal aid lawyers’ wages and the reality is astounding. Even one of our clients assumed our solicitors earn six figures. I have worked in housing law since 2006 and had to take a pay cut of £10k from my previous role in a charity in order to train. £18,590 might not sound too bad, but when you live in the most expensive city in the world and your friends earn twice what you do, it does get to you – it’s all relative. My wage on qualification will not be much better.

The reality is that the cuts to legal aid have compoundnoun_237310_cc
ed the huge problems of social immobility where people from more disadvantaged backgrounds are shut out from pursuing a legal career, and for that we are all poorer.

 

There is no incentive to working in legal aid anymore

I am a thirty year old paralegal working in criminal legal aid. I earn £17,000.

My typical day at work involves running my own caseload. I have around 40 clients who are facing criminal proceedings, varying from theft to murder. I manage cases from start to finish. My job is to take the client’s account, take any defence witness statements, chase the Crown Prosecution Service for outstanding evidence, which then has to be reviewed, and I also arrange for expert reports to be undertaken, which can be an extremely lengthy process.noun_89997_cc

Some clients can suffer with mental health problems, can be addicted to alcohol or drugs, can be volatile or emotionally distressed. Sometimes I may be sworn or shouted at, however, it is vital that these clients are treated with dignity and respect. I often refer these clients on to local support services if necessary. It is extremely important to me that, although my job is to take the client’s instructions, they get the chance to tell me about their issues, although equally important to keep a sometimes difficult client on track. There can be a fine art to this.

I also attend Magistrates and Crown Court hearings, along with any conferences that a client may have with his or her barrister. I visits clients in prison, who now can be very distressed as the prison service is also suffering severe cut backs and prisoners are held in their cells for most of the day.

By the time I qualify, I will have spent 6 years studying towards my degree, and a further two years studying part time towards my Legal Practice Course. A training contract will take two years part time, but I hope to be able to have some time knocked off for experience in criminal law, and I also hope to be able to complete this at the same time as my LPC. This would all have cost me £20,000. The average salary of a newly qualified criminal solicitor in my local area is around £25,000. When I worked as a legal secretary on the outskirts of London (with no legal qualifications), I earned £32,000. Where is the incentive? The simple answer is – there isn’t one.

Due to the cut backs and uncertainty in legal aid, firms have become stagnant, there are no funds to take on extra members of staff, there have been no pay rises in over 5 years and no bonuses or incentives to work towards.

Most students will opt for the higher paying career route, not legal aid. The legal aid sector is sure to dwindle, and those who, like me, want to practice in the legal aid sector to help the vulnerable, will be few and far between. We must protect those who cannot afford to pay for legal services.