Life as a high street legal aid trainee

In the vast majority of jobs, if your computer revealed a Google search history of terms such as “speed”, “Vitamin R” or “chill pills”, you would – at the bare minimum – get a call from the management and a frosty meeting with the HR department.

At a high street legal aid firm, no one bats an eyelid.

Training as a solicitor in a legal aid firm is far from boring. Every day brings new challenges and unexpected situations so summarising the work I have been doing for the past two years is almost impossible.

When I say unexpected, I really mean it! The concept of risk and of the unpredictable has taken on a whole new meaning for me. At the end of most days, I find myself wanting to say to people who ask me how my day went: “You have no idea of what happened at work today.”

Only a few months away from qualifying and with over two years of experience in the firm, I have so far practised in my firm’s criminal defence and child-care law teams. It’s time in criminal defence that gives you a somewhat dubious internet history. You will instead need to conduct in-depth research on illicit drugs during office hours to gain a full understanding of your client’s case and be able to take their instructions correctly and advise them. You want to be prepared when your client challenges the police’s street valuation of the drugs or the prosecution alleges that your client’s texts messages are proof of the use of drug-dealing lingo!

The work can be an emotional rollercoaster, to say the least. On one occasion a client was shouting at me during a prison visit. I received surprisingly warm solidarity from fellow prison inmates who loudly voiced their support for me and told him to “shut up” and “leave the lady alone”. This made me smile. I can also distinctly remember struggling to hold back tears when all charges again a vulnerable 14-year-old client were dropped and he hugged me at Court.

One of the most interesting types of work in the criminal department has been the drafting of letters to the Crown Prosecution Service applying for discontinuance of a case against my client. This involves identifying and fleshing out factors that provide strong evidence that prosecuting is not in the interest of justice – for example, serious mental health issues or vulnerability due to age or personal circumstances.

Even when the day is not as adventurous, the work is definitely mentally stimulating and very varied. A key skill is being able to juggle a range of incredibly different tasks at the same time and prioritise the most urgent in time-constrained conditions, which can prove to be difficult when a client has just been arrested on a warrant and another is due to stand trial the next day.

Other days in the criminal department involved, for example, reviewing papers from the Crown Prosecution Service, preparing summaries and attending clients to take their instructions and advise them on their chances at trial and likely sentence if convicted.

My experience in crime has definitely been useful in the department I’m in now, family. You see child care cases from a different perspective, for one thing. In both departments the drafting of client letters and billing/administrative work constitutes an integral part of the day-to-day work and case management, and can often be hard to fit in with all the other pressing and urgent tasks.

Within the family department, I deal with specifically with child care law. I have been lucky enough to clerk at the Supreme Court In the Matter of N on 17 March 2016, dealing with the issue of how and whether child care proceedings can and should be transferred to another jurisdiction. I was positively surprised by how (relatively) informal the Justices were and by how clearly they rephrased counsels’ submissions. I will not hide that it felt quite special to have been seen by my friends and family on the live Supreme Court web-feed.

In family law, my work includes preparing briefs for counsel, summarising papers in the case bundles and clerking counsel at court – but there are also more unusual tasks. I also have also found myself reading through and summarising the scientific findings of hair strand tests performed on a parent to establish whether drugs or alcohol have been used within a particular timeframe. I have learned that after a drug has entered the body, it is metabolised into compounds derived from the drug through the blood supply, sebaceous secretions and sweat. Factors such as hair dye can influence the amount of drugs found in the hair. Even passive contamination from drugs (for example from second-hand smoking of cannabis) can be detected in hair strand testing. These tests can, of course, be key factors in the Court’s determination of whether parents are considered to have parenting capacity for their children.

Working at a legal aid firm is no doubt incredibly challenging, but it is impossible not to be fascinated and I can confidently say that I never get bored of the work. It has been and continues to be a huge and exciting learning curve – in which I’m learning not only legal skills. I’ve learnt so much about different social and cultural environments. And I’ve learnt about myself. I have discovered abilities I did not know I had and gained some real insight into my fears – and how to overcome them.

Sara Fantoni is a trainee at Lawrence & Co Solicitors in Maida Vale, London