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My career in legal aid

Posted on April 25, 2013 by Daniel at 2:13 am

foldersLegal aid work is tiring, frustrating and, at times, emotionally difficult – but worth pursuing, says Lizzie Dilks

With multimillion-pound cuts to the legal aid scheme, you might think that there’s little point going into publicly funded work. But if you can land a placement, then there’s still a good career to be had, even in some of the less fashionable areas of law.

Lizzie Dilks, 25, is halfway through her training contract with Hereward & Foster, a law firm in the East End of London. She read psychology at the University of Nottingham, then took the Graduate Diploma in Law and the Legal Practice Course (LPC) at the College of Law, Bloomsbury. She worked as a paralegal for a year at Hereward & Foster before she was offered a training contract.

How did you come to be working at this firm?
I heard of it through someone I met at a careers’ fair put on by the College of Law. I applied for a voluntary position and was offered one day a week, which I did while completing the LPC. Having enjoyed volunteering for about eight months, I applied for a paralegal position and was offered the job.

What kind of work does the firm do? 
It specialises in a number of areas of law, including actions against the police, clinical negligence, personal injury, family, housing, mental health, community care, immigration, crime, and will and probate. Most of our work is funded by legal aid.

Our clients are mostly from the local community, living in Newham and Tower Hamlets. We have several outreach projects — we run free legal advice sessions at GP surgeries and community centres — and many of our clients are referred through this work. In general, they come from underprivileged backgrounds, as by definition, those seeking legal aid are otherwise unable to afford legal representation.

Is this something you always wanted to do or did it happen by accident? 
I have trained in welfare benefit and debt law and am currently training in actions against the police, personal injury and clinical negligence. I always wanted to work in legal aid and initially wanted to work in family law. But I’ve ended up working in these areas and thoroughly enjoy them. I still want to try new areas and am looking forward to starting immigration law.

It was important to me to find a career that would be emotionally rewarding; I have a strong social conscience and wanted to work in an area that would positively impact people’s lives. Equally, I wanted a career that I would find intellectually stimulating and that would provide me with a professional qualification. Working as a legal aid lawyer satisfies both these things.

More specifically, I strongly believe that access to justice is a fundamental human right and consider that legal aid, which protects this right among the vulnerable sections of society, is an important and worthwhile line of work. So I chose to train with a firm that is committed to legal aid work and social issues.

I am contracted to work from 9am- 5pm, though I regularly work overtime. Most of my day is spent at my desk working on my cases and taking calls from clients. My workload varies between 80 and 100 cases, so there is a constant problem of too much work and not enough time to do it in.

I have client meetings, which are mainly held at the office, two or three times a week. But I also do home visits and visits to clients in prison, hospital and immigration detention centres. I have had a lot of advocacy experience at tribunal hearings and the occasional court hearing. I am very involved with our outreach work, giving free legal advice sessions one or two mornings a week.

Is the work satisfying or frustrating — or both? What are the best and worst things about it? 
The work can certainly be frustrating. We all try so hard to get the best outcomes for our clients, but a constant lack of resources makes an already difficult task all the more challenging. By contrast, our opponents — generally public bodies — are well resourced to defend these types of claims. In an ideal world all claimants and defendants would start off on an equal platform.

It can also be emotionally difficult. I recently had a client collapse on to the floor sobbing uncontrollably because eight members of her family had just been murdered. I felt powerless to console her. Other aspects can be upsetting too — turning someone away who needs your help but doesn’t qualify for legal aid because they are a few pounds over the financial eligibility threshold is never an easy thing to do.

But the negatives are undoubtedly outweighed by the positives. It is difficult to articulate the deep sense of satisfaction and reward you feel when someone has come to you in desperate need — whether it is because they are, say, homeless or have no money to feed their children — and you are able to help them.

It is equally rewarding obtaining compensation for someone who has, for example, had their home raided by armed police, been held at gunpoint, handcuffed, dragged out on to the street in front of all their neighbours, and detained, half naked, in the cold for an hour while the police turn their apartment upside down looking for weapons, only to be told they have made a mistake and got the wrong address.

But often it’s not about the compensation; many of our clients simply want an acknowledgement, explanation or apology. Often we are able to use individual cases as a driving force for bringing about improvements to public services so that others will not suffer the same mistreatment. I take a lot of pride in the thought that my work potentially can benefit so many people and it is always heartwarming to see the impact it has on the individual.

The work is very dynamic, which I enjoy, and I often have to deal with extreme and challenging situations — from, for example, having a client arrive at the office and tell you that he has just overdosed and is likely to drop dead at any moment, to trying to reason with someone who is delusional and convinced that he is being followed by secret police.

A real highlight has been working on a big court action against the police that involved a claim for assault, false imprisonment, negligence and malicious prosecution. The case was particularly interesting as it raised some complex legal issues and it was great experience attending court and working with counsel. We await the result with bated breath.

Many students will be deterred from legal aid work because of the cuts. How will this affect your firm, and what advice do you give students thinking of doing this kind of work?
The recent reforms have dramatically reduced the scope of legal aid and I’m not sure anyone can really predict what the future will hold. Sadly, some firms will struggle to survive, particularly those that specialise predominantly in legal aid work. But many firms, such as this one, are increasing the amount of private work that they do to compensate. This will hopefully bring financial stability while enabling them to continue doing publicly funded work.

This kind of work is is likely to become increasingly difficult to get into, but don’t be deterred. There is still legal aid available in some areas and those areas are of extremely high importance. It is essential to have intelligent, dedicated and hard-working individuals who are committed to ensuring high quality services.

How do you see your career progressing and where would you like to be in ten years’ time? 
Given the uncertainty surrounding legal aid, it’s hard to say where I might be in ten years. I hope to continue in the type of work that I am doing now but I am open-minded. I am confident that the wealth of experience I have gained and skills that I have developed will stand me in good stead for the future.

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