It’s no secret that life for a legal aid lawyer is very difficult in terms of targets and motivation. As a business, offering legal aid services comes with the knowledge that pay is poor and pro bono work is likely. Nonetheless, a legal aid lawyer does this willingly because we want to ensure the most vulnerable people can access expert legal advice. Our targets are less about money and more about the desire to help.
Reconciling the financial hit of legal aid services with the pressure of keeping a firm profitable is getting increasingly tough. Unsurprisingly, many law firms are deciding to turn away from this work. And with less specialists available to provide access to legal advice and justice, there’s a strong chance the most vulnerable could reach an entirely different outcome in their case.
Staying motivated requires lawyers who are self-starting and passionate about their work rather than being driven by targets. Avoiding legal aid lawyers getting stressed about financial targets or moving away into more lucrative private cases has to be led from the top. Our Directors remain committed to legal aid, but we also recognise that we can only do so by balancing legal aid and private work carefully.
One of our core values is “being brave”. To continue offering legal aid we have had to be brave and embrace change, adapting our business model to ensure the company still thrives. Our top fee earners with higher targets are senior lawyers with the knowledge and experience to run the most complex and convoluted legal aid cases. So we’ve created a balance where senior lawyers concentrate on achieving their higher targets whilst co-running legal aid cases with junior lawyers. The senior lawyer deals with the strategy of a legal aid case and the junior lawyer deals with the nuts and bolts. It’s workable and means every client, regardless of how we are getting paid, receives the same top level expertise.
This provides a superb training route for junior lawyers. Often legal aid cases are the most complicated, you learn fast, you have to think on your feet, be persistent, unravel the truth. There’s a critical need to bring on a new generation of legal aid lawyers and this is a good way to do it. Legal aid needs passion, drive and commitment. I truly believe junior lawyers who get involved in legal aid early on will develop not just a hunger for this type of work but also a depth of experience they might not otherwise get.
On the issue of legal aid lawyers feeling undervalued, one answer is to make sure salary brackets are the same for both private and legal aid cases. As a business we recognise a legal aid lawyer will never bring in as much as a private lawyer, but this doesn’t mean they should be paid less. Ensuring targets are achievable and fair will ensure legal aid lawyers remain motivated. This is the way to overcome the stigma that legal aid is an unrewarding area of family law.