At the bar: Legal aid – why we love what we do
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Louise Heath
Sue James talks to Mary-Rachel McCabe of Doughty Street Chambers and Heather Thomas from Creighton & Partners Solicitors, two inspiring lawyers and campaigners for social justice, both at the start of their careers but already making their mark, about what led them to follow the legal aid path.
Description: Mary-Rachel McCabe and Heather Thomas
Mary-Rachel McCabe (left) and Heather Thomas – inspiring lawyers forging a career in legal aid
‘If I couldn’t be a legal aid lawyer, I would leave the law,’ Mary-Rachel exclaims when I meet her in La Fromagerie, Lamb’s Conduit Street, Bloomsbury. I had wanted to find out what was still attracting young lawyers to a career in legal aid, so I invited her and Heather to join me for a drink. These exceptional women are being ‘more than’ legal aid lawyers. So how did they get here?
If I couldn’t be a legal aid lawyer, I would leave the law.
We have to have a cheese board, of course, and it seems appropriate to choose the British/Irish board, given Heather and Mary-Rachel’s origins. The waiter recommends a bottle of Chignin Bergeron Les Eboulis 2016 to go with it. Why not, I think. The necessary photograph takes some time, but eventually Mary-Rachel and Heather agree on a portrait, and we get started.
Early days
Mary-Rachel grew up in Omagh, a small town in Northern Ireland. ‘Most people have only heard of it because of the bombing,’ she says. That happened in 1998, when she was just 10 years old, the second youngest of six siblings, from an ‘exceptionally working-class family’.
Heather describes her background as ‘much more straightforward and boring’. She grew up in Birmingham, a middle child, from a middle-class family, who had to ‘shout to get noticed’. Both parents were teachers and Labour supporters: ‘The 1997 election, aged 12, was my first memory of politics, of dad being delighted the Labour Party was back in power,’ she recalls.
Both went to their local grammar schools and had the same brown and cream uniforms: ‘We used to be called the “brown cows,”’ says Heather. ‘We had worse,’ replies Mary-Rachel, ‘they used to call us “shit and custard”.’
Routes to law
Bright and ambitious, and longing for more than a small town could offer, Mary-Rachel left for Brighton at 18. She tells me, ‘I wanted to run away as far as possible. I felt suffocated by Northern Ireland.’ She chose law and Spanish at Sussex University – she had no intention of becoming a lawyer then but wanted to keep her options open. The first two years she found ‘tedious and boring’ but went off to study in her year abroad and came back ‘invigorated and actually enjoying the law’ after reading international human rights in Seville.
Heather chose politics and development at Manchester University because ‘I wanted to do a degree that I knew I would enjoy’. It was while she was studying for her master’s degree at Goldsmiths that she started to volunteer for immigration charities and thought about going down the NGO route. I ask her why? ‘I felt very passionate about the rights of would-be refugees, I guess,’ she replies. But after being ‘frustrated by the red tape’, she decided on law.
Choices
I’m struck by how both came to law through the human rights/immigration route but didn’t end up there. Heather has a strong practice in child care law and Mary-Rachel in social welfare. ‘Everyone wants to be a human rights lawyer,’ Mary-Rachel says, laughing. ‘What they mean is they all want to be Amal Clooney.’ She has just been processing pupillage applications at Doughty Street and advises, ‘Stop with the nebulous terminology.’
Heather went on to do the Graduate Diploma in Law and then the Legal Practice Course, which she found ‘the most depressing, awful course to study, ever’, but she knew it was ‘a means to an end’. And it was while at the College of Law in Bloomsbury that she studied legal aid modules ‘that don’t exist anymore’ but sparked her interest in legal aid. ‘I wanted to do immigration, but what I discovered in law school was legal aid,’ she tells me.
After graduating with a first-class degree, Mary-Rachel stayed on in Brighton. Unable to get a paralegal job, she was working in a pub every night until 4 am and volunteering for an asylum-seekers charity during the day. ‘I was working about 80 hours a week, or something obscene,’ she tells me, but ‘it was killing me’. So she quit her job and signed on. She was offered unpaid admin jobs in return for her benefit from the DWP: ‘They were trying to get me to work for free but I refused, although this was before sanctions.’ She knows ‘how awful and demeaning’ the benefits system is, which gives her such empathy when dealing with her clients.
Legal aid
‘The passion for me became legal aid and justice generally,’ Heather tells me. Her first job offer was doing legal aid, not in immigration, but in family law. It was ‘half of what I wanted to do, so I thought I’d take it, but then, the rest is history, as I fell in love with family’. She’s a very accomplished child care lawyer, a finalist at the 2017 Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year awards alongside one of her mentors. ‘It was a huge compliment,’ she tells me, ‘but also slightly embarrassing’ given the quality of the candidates. I think she sells herself short: her passion and commitment to her clients are inspiring. ‘If you care, and your clients feel you care, then that adds an extra element, and sometimes that can be a case turner,’ she explains.
If you care, and your clients feel you care, then that adds an extra element, and sometimes that can be a case turner.
‘Yes, they hear you fighting,’ Mary-Rachel agrees, ‘and sometimes it’s the first person who has been on their side, willing to fight their corner.’ She left Brighton to start an internship at Hackney Law Centre. She was living on £20 a day and ‘sofa-surfing’ but loved the work: ‘I found it rewarding and empowering, working on the front line with really impoverished people. I thought, “Wow, I can write a letter and someone gets money. This is what I want to do.”’ Of course, that was when benefits were in scope for legal aid, and Heather speaks for us all when she says: ‘It needs to be brought back into scope immediately.’
I’d previously known Mary-Rachel in a different role, as a journalist. She had been writing from an early age, and even had her own column in the Irish Times: ‘A fortnight in the life of Mary-Rachel McCabe.’ I ask her if this would now be called a blog? ‘Yes, there was a lot of self-indulgence, but then there is in most blogging,’ she replies. It’s these combined skills of law and journalism that got her client, Tony Rice, into the media earlier this year. She had been so cross after the court hearing that she tweeted his case – in 13 linked tweets. He became known as ‘one of the real Daniel Blakes’ and stood on the platform with Mary-Rachel at the Vigil for Justice in April 2018 (see May 2018 Legal Action 6).
I found it rewarding and empowering, working on the front line with really impoverished people. I thought, ‘Wow, I can write a letter and someone gets money. This is what I want to do.’
We are interrupted by the waiter to tell us our table is only booked until 8.30 pm. ‘Oh, we won’t be finished by then,’ Mary-Rachel replies, and I start to worry. He returns to inform us he’s ‘shuffled things around’, so we order another bottle to celebrate.
The profession
‘Throughout my journalism I always had my eye on the prize,’ Mary-Rachel explains. ‘By now I knew I wanted to be a barrister, a particular type of barrister, so I only applied to a select number of legal aid chambers.’ Doughty Street got lucky. But she could only do this with the help of a scholarship.
Her decision to go to the bar seems an unlikely one, as she was ‘painfully shy at school’ and would ‘hide under the table in mental arithmetic’. But things changed at 17, when she moved from the country into town and started to gain confidence. Her brother Niall, 12 years older (and trained at LAMDA) taught her the art of public speaking. After his early death, she describes ‘channelling her brother’ in her decision to become a barrister and ‘transform injustice’.
Heather knew she wanted to be a solicitor: ‘My favourite part is the client work, we get to do that more than barristers, and I love building a relationship with people.’ As a family lawyer she’s still at court a great deal, and feels ‘it’s nice to be able to carry them through as a solicitor advocate, as you know the case like no one else’. She feels her main skill-set is ‘being a perfectionist, working really hard, and telling their story’.
But this comes after a difficult period in a firm when she was very unhappy. By this time, Heather tells me, ‘I didn’t want to be a lawyer, I didn’t want to do family law, I just felt angry every day.’ She moved to a smaller firm in south-east London and her confidence grew. It was at this point that Creightons approached her with a job offer, and she couldn’t resist: ‘How could you say no to a firm you respect and want to work for?’ She tells me that she is ‘totally inspired by so many of her colleagues, and that’s so important’.
She deals with a lot of difficult family cases – many of her clients are women. She says: ‘For you, as a female lawyer, fighting for someone and having the ability to empower them, is not just the case outcome, but seeing you work really hard for them, I think that can make a difference.’ And I believe her.
I ask if sexism is something they’ve experienced within the profession. Mary-Rachel has, both in the criminal court and in the robing room: ‘A large percentage of judges treated my male opponents better, they would try to undermine me, and grill me more.’ Both agree the civil bar isn’t the same. ‘The men don’t strut in their wigs and gowns,’ says Mary-Rachel, and ‘the bullying of judge to counsel is very different.’
Heather’s experience is much more positive: ‘I’ve not had any negative personal experiences, but then there are a lot of women there, because of the child dynamic,’ she says. They both agree: ‘Wigs are outdated and need to be abolished!’
The future
Both women worry about the diversity within the profession. Heather joined Young Legal Aid Lawyers (YLAL) as a student and sits on the committee. YLAL’s campaigning work is impressive: its recent report, Social mobility in a time of austerity (March 2018; see April 2018 Legal Action 14), concludes that debt and low salaries are barriers to the profession, as are unpaid work experience, lack of support and stress. Mary-Rachel mentions the ‘Wellbeing Team’ at Doughty Street, with its access to support and counselling as well as free weekly massages. That’s a positive sign of change.
Legal aid lawyers are always going to be necessary, unless the law is perfect, and no one is treated badly and there is no injustice in society.
I ask them how we can inspire the young, how we get lawyers to continue to do legal aid? Heather pauses before she responds: ‘I think there will always be people who want to do it, because that’s the faith I have in humanity, younger voters are coming through and they want change.’ She continues: ‘For me it’s the human side; legal aid lawyers are always going to be necessary, unless the law is perfect, and no one is treated badly and there is no injustice in society.’
It’s kicking-out time and I see I have just over three hours of recording. We decide to ‘have one last one’ in the pub opposite before we head home. And later, as I do, I think how lovely it was to sit across the table looking at their beautiful, bright, determined faces, their energy and enthusiasm bouncing off each other, with their futures stretching out before them. They didn’t know each other before tonight, and are from very different backgrounds, but they left, in their own words, ‘as new best friends’.
Hero in the law
Mary-Rachel: Gareth Peirce (for getting the Guildford Four out of prison)
Heather: Brenda Hale (but also the solicitors who have inspired me on a day-to-day basis)
Favourite court
Mary-Rachel: Lambeth County Court (where I cut my teeth in housing)
Heather: Central Family Court (as it’s where I spend most of my time)
Favourite animal case
Mary-Rachel: Disappointingly, no animal cases yet (Sue has threatened to change this!)
Heather: Phoned by a client who asked: ‘Heather, why is there a snake, a hamster and a dog running around my flat?’
Favourite haircut
Mary-Rachel: Pixie cut
Heather: Glossy hair (although I remember having a ‘bowl cut’ as a child)
Favourite drink
Mary-Rachel: G&T
Heather: Sauvignon blanc
Jukebox single
Mary-Rachel: ‘Steal My Sunshine’, Len
Heather: ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’, The Beach Boys
Favourite law film/TV/book
Mary-Rachel: Martha in Silk (I channel her)
Heather: Ally McBeal
‘At the bar’ is a series of articles in which Sue James, winner of the outstanding achievement award at the 2017 Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year awards, interviews friends of LAG in informal settings and over a glass (or two!).

About the author(s)

Description: Sue James
Sue James is CEO of LAG. She was previously director and housing solicitor at Hammersmith & Fulham Law Centre and a founding trustee at Ealing Law...