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, because they believe the most vulnerable in society should have access to professional legal services as much as everyone else.
But is it all as bad as it’s made out to be? In truth, the human impact from working in legal aid can lead to extra stress and difficulty switching off from work. But in a progressive, modern legal aid firm, that puts the welfare of its legal teams at the forefront it can be an incredibly rewarding and fruitful career.
Legal aid law firms need to ensure they have a well-thought-out, well-implemented support programme. This can include things like:
- Regular supervision sessions to go through cases and workloads, providing an opportunity to discuss case strategy and co-work complicated cases, ensuring that junior lawyers receive the expertise and support of more experienced lawyers.
- The introduction of a mentoring scheme to discuss not only career aspirations and planning, but mentees’ work and wellbeing.
- A dedicated wellbeing team with “wellbeing champions” and a mental health first aider available to talk about any areas of concern and internal comms providing tips and strategies.
- A buddying system for new starters showing them legal aid applications and supporting them when they make their first applications.
- Talks and webinars on topics like mindfulness, vicarious trauma, stress management and sleep.
It’s equally important to make sure that all members of the team are fully trained and adhere to best practices, through offering regular in-house training on legal aid procedures and rules, costing and client process, as well as having experienced individuals ready to respond to questions about legal aid. And how about providing support for assessing if legal aid criteria are met right at the start?
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 extra, unnecessary 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. We need talented, passionate young lawyers to bring their energy to legal aid. Yes, 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.
Polly Hall is head of Legal Aid Costings at The Family Law Company.