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Practising as a legal aid lawyer can provide great job satisfaction. But as Gemma Charles reports, the flip side is that it can leave you with a hole in your pocket

Weve got more solicitors coming up, more solicitors than weve ever had in the past. Goodness knows what the extra 49.5 per cent are doing. As you know, practices have gone up by that amount in 10 years. Where are they all? Are they all working for Shell or Clifford Chance? How are we going to get them back onto the high street, into the law centres, into the CABs [Citizens Advice Bureaux] doing this kind of work? asks a perplexed Keith Vaz MP, a member of the House of CommonsConstitutionalAffairs Committee, which is holding an inquiry into legal aid.

Good question. Law students and trainees wanting to pursue a career as legal aid solicitors typically covering areas such as crime, employment, family, housing, matrimonial, personal injury, probate and employment for people unable to afford their own legal representation are becoming an increasingly rare breed.

There are no figures available that illustrate the decline, but the Legal Aid Practitioners Group (LAPG), the independent campaigning group for the sector, says that of the 5,000 training contracts that are available each year, only 500-1,000 are issued by legal aid firms. LAPG director Richard Miller says his members report decreased applications and a decrease in the quality of candidates over the last five years.

This decline is borne out in a comprehensive Law Society survey for the Commons inquiry of 1,522 trainees and 2,123 law students, which found that just 7 per cent of trainees and 17 per cent of students could see themselves working in legal aid.

It could be the money that is putting people off. With many high street firms starting trainees at the Law Societys minimum recommended salary of 13,600, and 15,300 for Central London, this is around half of what a trainee could get in a large to medium-sized City firm. And to add insult to injury, students wanting to go down the legal aid route will in the vast majority of cases have to fund themselves through their LPC, as additional funding from high street firms is virtually non-existent. There is also a problem with image, and legal aid lawyers are sometimes seen as milking the state.

But this is law at the sharp end from the word go. The high street firm is not the place for someone who wants to be mollycoddled with a large group of trainees; caseloads are large and varied, and, because firms take on very few trainees, responsibility is immediate. Trainee legal aid solicitors will deal largely with individuals rather than large corporations, the bread-and-butter clients of City firms, which can be very rewarding. There are usually plenty of opportunities for court work and the chance to practise as an advocate.

Although few respondents to the Law Societys survey said they thought legal aid was a good career option, when asked whether they would consider it if all things were even, the story is very different. Fifty per cent of trainees and 59 per cent of law students said they would consider it if there was a level playing field between legal aid and commercial firms. Nearly half of the respondents (47 per cent) agreed that legal aid work is highly satisfying, while more than half (55 per cent) said the Government was not committed to funding the work properly.

Women came out as more likely to consider a career in legal aid work than men and respondents who rated highly the categories of value of work to the community, security of employment and impact of the job/work on your social life were also more likely to favour the publicly funded side.

Respondents generally expressed negative views about the pay, working conditions and employee benefits associated with legal aid work, with 70 per cent disagreeing with the statement that legal aid lawyers are well paid.

The survey also found that 84 per cent of respondents were in debt, with 64 per cent carrying between 5,001 and 15,000, while 17 per cent were more than 20,000 in debt. Almost 94 per cent intended to pay off their debts through their salary.

Mills & Reeve trainee Tamsin Tomlinson backs up the survey findings and says she would definitely have considered a career in legal aid if all things were equal but, having weighed up the options, she decided it would be a no-brainer.

The wages we get paid here are well above the Law Society minimum and we get the LPC paid for and the maintenance. I wouldnt have been able to afford to do the LPC without that, she explains. People are quite idealistic when theyre students, but once they find out about the realities, it puts people off.

So there lies the rub. A sizeable number of students and trainees are interested in legal aid work and the opportunities it offers to contribute to the community, but believe the sector is underfunded. In the face of spiralling student debt, a career in legal aid where in most cases you must pay for your LPC and will receive low pay while training looks distinctly unattractive.

The modern legal aid system dates back to the Legal Aid Act 1948, which came in as part of the welfare state revolution. By the end of the 1970s the scheme had been extended to cover almost all court proceedings and the financial conditions for eligibility had been set at a level which made access to justice a reality for whoever wanted it.

But this ethos has long since withered and successive governments have made attempts to crack down on legal aid costs, which for 2002-03 were more than 1.9bn, representing an increase of 500m in seven years. The Government blames this steep rise on increased legal aid for criminal cases in the higher courts and a rise in asylum and immigration cases. In 2000, this government created the Legal Services Commission (LSC) to create and manage contracts with exclusive suppliers for criminal and civil work in an attempt to rein in spending. Despite solicitors protestations that they barely get enough money to cover the cost of a case, the Governments emphasis is on spending less, not more.

But something has got to give. Young Solicitors Group chairman Adrian Barham says the fundamental problem that stops people coming into legal aid is that it is not profitable. His organisation has suggested the extension of low-cost student loans to people studying to be legal aid solicitors and the creation of a dedicated legal aid LPC, supported by grants from the LSC.
Our aim is to attract students to a career in legal aid with a package of funding and a dedicated LPC, which will equip them for a rewarding career in public service, he says.

On the LPC front there has been some movement, and the College of Law and the LSC were finalising talks over a legal aid-focused LPC.

Last summer the LSC made 3m available to help fund the training contracts of legal aid solicitors, with more money set to be announced imminently.

Both Barham and Tomlinson, who was a teacher before opting for the legal profession, would like to see the Government run some kind of high-profile campaign backed with incentives, in much the same manner that it has tried to attract teachers to the profession.

This is exactly the same problem that hit the teaching profession 10-15 years ago, but the Government has gradually changed the view of the profession. If you dont spend money on getting lawyers in, the whole system is going to fall apart, adds Barham.

Are you listening, Mr Vaz?

Get in the know: LAPG advice for wannabe solicitors

When you are looking for a job, you need to know the following: is the firm committed to legal aid? Is it likely to keep its franchise? Is it likely to keep its contract in the fields you want to work in? Most firms now have a website, which you should take a look at to try to find out something about the firm, its history, its ethos and the fields of law it covers.

When attending an interview, you should find out in what fields of law the firm has a contract, whether it intends to apply for a contract in any other field and whether it is doing more or less legal aid work than in previous years.

You should find out who is the franchise liaison officer. If it is someone too junior, it may be that the firm tolerates legal aid on sufferance; if it is someone close to retirement, will the commitment still be there among the more junior partners when they have gone?

Does the firm do a lot of private work in the fields for which it has a contract? If so, it is much easier for the firm to ditch legal aid. You should try to find out what proportion of the firms workload is publicly funded.
Anything over 35 per cent is likely to mean that the franchise is safe for now, unless it is all in family work, where there is no shortage of private work to replace it. Anything under 25 per cent and there is a significant risk of the firm taking the decision before you have qualified that the administrative burdens are too high to justify the limited returns.

Likewise, the fields of law in which the firm has a contract may give some indication of the level of commitment to legal aid. A firm with only a family contract may well have a more tenuous commitment than a firm with several contracts. Contracts in welfare benefits, education, community care and public law strongly indicate an ethos in the firm compatible with a
long-term commitment to legal aid.

Case study

Gary Brankin is the Law Society Council member for trainee solicitors and LPC students and has been on both sides of the fence. Having trained in a legal aid firm, he now works for insurance litigation firm Berrymans Lace Mawer.

Brankin moved from legal aid to commercial work because he wanted to specialise in personal injury.
In a smaller firm, work of a particular kind is not always certain, as firms are reliant on what comes through the door. Commercial firms tend to have contracts with insurers or trade unions and thus can offer a guaranteed level of quality and quantity of work, he explains.

There are other differences, though. He no longer has his own room and must share an open-plan office, and working in teams is more common. Although time targets are run throughout the profession, he thinks they are more regulated and demanding within a larger firm.

Caseloads, he says, are comparable but are easier to handle at his new firm as cases are similar and specialised rather than the mixed caseload thrown up by legal aid work.

I have less [leisure] time, but this is more because of travel than work. Time targets can be hit in office hours, but those targets will vary from firm to firm. This firm is reasonable in its expectations, he says.

But Brankin still has a passion for the legal aid side. The works often very rewarding and clients come to you in times of need with real legal problems that your training can solve, he says. Whether a client has been served with an eviction notice or an application notice for contact to their daughter, clients look to you
for help, which is what the law should
be about.

Legal aid can often help to even the odds where clients are facing a much larger opponent in the form of a bank or company.

He adds that the nature of the cases means that a trainee can take on their own clients in a relatively short period of time. The works varied, as people come in off the street and you never know who might walk through your doors next and with what problems, he concludes.