I am a criminal legal aid lawyer applying for prosecution roles where my salary will double

icon_4259I am a newly qualified solicitor practising in criminal defence and prison law. My salary is £19,000.

Depending on what is in the diary I may be leaving my house at any time from 6am onwards for prison visits, disciplinary hearings or Parole Board hearings. These visits are very regular and take up significant time due to extensive travelling. If I am office based for the day, I usually arrive at 8:30am to take advantage of the quiet time before the phone starts ringing.

It is really difficult to describe a ‘typical day’ as matters and client issues come up often. During the day I may be called to cover a police station attendance, an urgent remand court hearing or cover for colleagues who have been called away themselves. It is not unusual to have to cover appointments or see clients when they attend the office outside of a pre-arranged appointment or cover client meetings when the assigned solicitor is otherwise engaged. This typically means having to get ‘on top of the papers’ in a very quick space of time to be able to take instructions and provide solid advice. On a quiet day, which has run according to my diary, I am able to leave the office between 5pm – 5:30pm. The out of hours call rota for the police stations, late night client meetings or at home preparation for the following day usually keeps me working into the evening from the relative comfort of my dining table.

I currently earn £19,000 which was increased from my training salary of £17,000. With this, I have to run a house and a car which is vital for my work. I am compensated on a low level for mileage but this is paid in arrears and out of office hours travelling time (e.g. setting off at 7:30am for a 9am start) is unpaid and flexi-working is not possible. I have credit card debt which is slowly being chipped away at but it is difficult to make ends meet with the rising costs of living. It is not unusual to have a fridge that only has milk and cheese in and because I am tired, I often don’t shop for groceries. The risks of buying a big grocery shop and being unable to afford to fuel my car is a very real worry.

I love my job, I love the clients, and despite the problems, I (generally) like how busy I am. The pay however is difficult to stomach and I am currently applying for prosecution roles where my salary will effectively double. It is not all about the money, but I sometimes feel that I would qualify for legal aid myself.

Without sounding selfish, the pay for legal aid lawyers is forcing us out of the profession and is unsustainable. If that continues to happen then our clients will suffer. I do not know of any legal aid lawyer who entered legal aid practice for the riches, but struggling to make ends meet leaves a sour taste in the mouth. We all want to help our clients and I am deeply saddened by having to leave criminal defence legal aid work, but it is now becoming a financial decision.

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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.

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?

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.

I would not want my solicitor to say they did not have time for my family

I’m a trainee solicitor specialising in the defence of fraud, white-collar crime and regulatory matters. It is somewhat a fancy title, but I feel the salary certainly does not reflect that (I earn £16,000). Rather despondently, I have to admit that I earned more as a receptionist during my University vacations than I do now, and that was without the qualifications, and the inevitable debts of obtaining a degree and the subsequent Legal Practice Course (LPC).

My day typically begins at 6:30am when I get up to get ready for work. I’m out of the house by 7:30am to make the hour and a half London commute to the office. At the office, I begin following up emails and messages I’ve received over night from clients or counsel. This job is most certainly not a nine to five.

It is then a matter of either hours of considering and analysing prosecution papers, court or prison visits or back-to-back conferences with whoever requires my attention that day. This will usually be counsel, experts, clients or perhaps more often than not their family members. Many people fail to acknowledge that it is not just my client who goes through the legal proceedings but also their friends and relatives. The legal aid agency does not pay for my time to meet with family members (unless they are a potential defence witness) so much of this I do pro bono (“for free”). Why do I do this? If the roles were ever to be reversed I would not want my solicitor to say they did not have time for my family or friends, so I do for them what I would want done for me.

In fact, a lot of what I do is pro bono; before funding is in place or once a case has been closed I still do what I can to help a client. Often, I am all they have to help them through the most trying and daunting time of their life and to turn them away because I do not get paid for it would be unjust.

If I am not in the office I may have to see my client in a prison or a Court hundreds miles from the office. This would take me out of the office all day and be costly in travel. Fortunately, my firm does reimburse me personally for my travel fees but this often leaves them out of pocket. This is because there is a limit on what can be claimed from the legal aid agency.

After a long day at the office, court, prison or wherever I may be, I am lucky if I am home before 8pm. Twice a week I also study my LPC course in the evenings, so on these nights it is more like 10pm. Once home, and when I say home, I mean my parents home. I eat dinner and prepare whatever I need for the following day and sleep.

I am thankful to my parents who tolerate me still living at home. I returned from University with the promise to myself, and them, that “I’ll only be at home for a year”. Three years later and I’m still living with my parents. I had every intention of moving out, but the reality of limited earnings, the high cost of London rent, my LPC and student loan repayments, I had no choice but to reconsider.

When I qualify I am hoping to be on a salary which allows me to live independently… I can only think this is what the myth means when they describe all lawyers as “fat cats lining their pockets”.

I am passionate about a career in public law, but the changes to legal aid have made it increasingly less viable.

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Coins, by Timur Zima, Noun Project

The nature of public law means that work is often urgent, but it also varies. Today I came in just before 900 for a phone conference with counsel to discuss an emergency judicial review. Judicial Review is the means by which individuals can challenge decisions made by government bodies, and can often be the only way that someone can change or reverse something very unfair. This can include bringing judicial review claims against the police.

Shortly after my conference, I was frantically putting together papers for Court and by 0945 I was on my bike to the Adminstrative Court Office with papers and a cheque to pay for the application.  Back in the office at 1100 after filing the papers in court, I was busily preparing for the emergency permission hearing at 3pm, to decide whether the case should proceed to the next stage.  At the last minute things changed as the Defendant backed down, so we did not need to proceed with the hearing. There was still a lot of work that needed to be done including making sure that all parties had hard copies of the documents.

At 2pm my tummy was rumbling so I had  lunch at my desk.

I worry that we might not get paid for the work we did.  Although there was clearly merit to the claim – which is why the Defendant backed down – because of the stage that the case ended, we would have had to follow Regulations that meant that we have to request that the Legal Aid Agency exercise discretion to pay us for the work we did before the Defendant conceded. These Regulations were recently challenged in Court, again using the Judicial Review process; and thankfully we were paid for our work in this case.

This week I have also been responsible for dealing with written enquiries from potential clients.  This is an extra job which I have to fit in somewhere between all the casework, and inevitably means that I stay late.  Today I stayed in until 8pm to ensure that I responded to all the queries in good time.

Currently, I earn £20,000 a year. I love my job, but it would be nice to not have to worry about how much I spend when I buy my groceries.

I am passionate about a career in public law but the changes to legal aid have made it increasingly less viable as a career. I am applying for pupillages to become a barrister, and some of the positions I have applied to expect me to be able to survive in London on £12,000 for the year.  Although I told myself that I wouldn’t apply to these because I couldn’t afford it, such is my determination to practise public law that I gave in and decided that if I end up getting offered a pupillage with these chambers, I would just have to try to make it work.
I am concerned about all the cuts to legal aid because it is returning us to the dark ages when access to justice was determined by how wealthy you were.