updated on 08 June 2021
Legal aid champion, Polly Hall, at The Family Law Company explains why the desire to pursue a career as a legal aid lawyer is something to be applauded, encouraged and supported.
What is legal aid?
Working as a lawyer in legal aid is going to be tough. Long hours, distressing cases and distraught clients. This is an area of law for those who really do want to make a difference. Legal aid lawyers aren’t the flash style of lawyer portrayed in a myriad of films and TV series. Rather, they do what they do because they care.
You only have to look at the past year to understand how critical legal aid is and the dedication of those who champion this undervalued area of law. The commitment shown by dedicated legal aid lawyers up and down the country in ensuring that access to justice is maintained despite the huge challenges posed by the pandemic, should be recognised and applauded.
Legal aid is one of the most vital areas of family law because the most vulnerable in society should have access to professional legal services as much as everyone else. It is important to remember that life is harder than we can imagine for many legal aid clients. Talk to any legal aid lawyer and even if they are disheartened, their passion and resolve to help shines through. This may not be the most profitable practice area, but it is one of the most rewarding.
Legal aid support programmes
But is it all as bad as it’s being made out to be? In a progressive, modern legal aid firm, the welfare of lawyers and support staff must be paramount. Yes, the human impact from working in legal aid has been put in the spotlight over the past 12 months; the additional pressure from increased caseloads during the pandemic has led to extra stress, sleep problems and difficulty switching off from work. But it is possible to mitigate this impact. Our own legal aid teams have benefitted from a well-thought-out and well-implemented support programme which includes the following:
Legal aid training
Equally important – and another way to help relieve pressure – is making sure that all members of the team are fully trained and adhere to best practices. We offer regular in-house training on the legal aid procedure and rules, costing and client process, as well as having experienced appointed individuals who members of the firm can go to if they have any questions about legal aid. We also provide support in assessing when legal aid is available – every lawyer wanting to open a legal help file goes to a set individual for initial approval and they check that the legal aid criteria are met. This training and support ensures that the burden isn’t all on the lawyer.
It also makes sense to assure legal aid lawyers that they will have reasonable achievable targets based on their average hourly rates so that they don’t feel under unnecessary pressure. The situation we find ourselves in now is like nothing we have experienced before. They are under enough pressure.
Our firm has put these methods in place, and our efforts have been rewarded by attracting rising young talent to our legal aid teams. It is testament to their beliefs and resolve that they have chosen this challenging area, and they deserve our support every step of the way.
Legal aid lawyer: rising star
One of our rising stars is Holly Crook, who joined us in 2016 as a paralegal and commenced her training contract in 2018 specialising in legal aid. She qualified as a solicitor in February 2020. Holly has demonstrated her passion for legal aid work from the start and now undertakes part of the legal aid training for new starters and lawyers in the firm to make sure it is advocated and prioritised. She is the first to say that her passion comes from her commitment to helping the most vulnerable people in our society and that she recognised early on that the only way she could do so was to specialise in family legal aid.
In Holly’s words: “Being part of a team that specialises in offering legal aid to clients means that we all share an ethos and passion for prioritising clients’ needs. Undertaking legal aid work means that you have the opportunity to help clients in serious situations, who would not have been able to afford legal services privately. This type of work is not only rewarding, but ensures that parties can have representation in complex and distressing cases and achieve outcomes with the support of legal advice and representation. The question of availability of legal aid in family proceedings is something to be considered in the future but for now, it is important that we continue to advocate for legal aid and this provision for those in need.”
We need talented, passionate young lawyers like Holly to bring their energy to legal aid, not eschew it because it is just too stressful a specialism to even contemplate. It is difficult, it can occasionally be chaotic, but ultimately it is incredibly rewarding to be that lawyer, the one who helps the most vulnerable to get access to justice.
The legal sector needs to shake off the belief that providing legal aid isn’t worth it anymore, and make sure that we encourage the next generation of legal aid lawyers.
Polly Hall is head of Legal Aid Costings at The Family Law Company.