The recent Junior Lawyers Division Early Career Work Experience survey revealed that only 4 per cent of students want to go into legal aid work.
It also showed that students prioritise pay over their preferred areas of law, and that small firms struggle to retain young lawyers.
I don’t think it’s because we’re greedy, or even don’t have an interest, it’s about the stark reality of debt and low finances.
As a young lawyer, you want to be taking your first steps out into the world, moving away from home, but facing a chance of no pay for months, or minimum wage for years doesn’t seem to balance out. When you are paying magic circle firm prices for your legal education, I think it would be fair to say that after all that spending you’d like magic circle wages. Not to mention the general difficulties in finding opportunities.
So why should we do legal aid?
This is really about creating an effective justice system and being a part of that. The system needs us. After my couple of months at a legal aid firm I have learnt more than anything that it isn’t just about the client. It’s about the process – you’re there to police it so it’s just as fair to the man on the Clapham omnibus as the prisoner in HMP Belmarsh. You never meet the former. You meet the latter and the hardest thing for the legal system is making it just as effective and efficient for them. We would be at a very sad day if someone was eligible for legal aid but there were not enough solicitors willing to take on the work.
It’s also about you and what you want from your legal career. Legal aid firms are usually smaller than corporate firms so you get more control and independence about the running of cases, and more capability to assist people. You know everyone there, which means you have the opportunity to liaise and work for other departments and widen your knowledge of legal areas. The flexibility; the ability to straddle more than one area of law and the knowledge that you are assisting the process can’t be topped.
Personally, I wouldn’t do this work because it’s rewarding. Rewarding gets old, I know that first hand. It has to be about the law, the justice system and a genuine concern for fairness.
For those who are interested there is support. Young Legal Aid Lawyers offers mentoring opportunities, a jobs page that is regularly updated and the opportunity to meet and volunteer with other people who care about legal aid. Many meetings are held at chambers and with qualified lawyers who practice in legal aid. It may be the first step that you need.
Monifa Walters-Thompson is a member of Young Legal Aid Lawyers.