Former employment and planning caseworkers Georgina Churchhouse and Esther Drabkin-Reiter discuss the benefits of working in a Law Centre for future barristers and solicitors, and how practitioners can support the Law Centre movement.
Why did you apply to work in a Law Centre?
GC and ED-R We both obtained pupillage during our year as judicial assistants to the Court of Appeal. After this privileged insight into the workings of one of the highest courts in the country, we wanted to take what we had learnt to the opposite end of legal advice provision, by working in the not-for-profit (NfP) community legal sector. When caseworker roles in relevant fields were advertised, we seized the opportunity to apply.
What roles can those who are not legally qualified undertake?
GC Caseworkers are not required to be qualified solicitors or barristers, as they do not undertake advisory or advocacy work in the courts and are supervised by a legally qualified practitioner. There are also plenty of opportunities for advocacy in the employment tribunal, where most employment disputes are litigated.
ED-R The nature of planning decision-taking, particularly in relation to larger schemes that may take years to be finally determined, meant that opportunities for litigating were fairly limited. I could therefore offer almost all the necessary support to deliver my role despite not being legally qualified. Such support included: delivering workshops on how to respond to planning consultations; responding to such consultations on behalf of individuals and community groups; advising on the planning process; and connecting local people with pro bono legal support.
What experience prepared you for your roles?
I had studied employment and discrimination law to master’s level as well as undertaking a number of cases for the Free Representation Unit (FRU). One of those cases, Santos Gomes v Higher Level Care Ltd UKEAT/0017/16/RN, 18 May 2016
, was an important test case concerning compensation for breaches of the Working Time Directive (Directive 2003/88/EC
). I’d also had the opportunity to work on a number of interesting employment and discrimination cases at the Court of Appeal as a judicial assistant. My previous work experience in a wide variety of employment settings helped when thinking about how certain types of organisations are run and the sort of environment in which my clients may have been working.
ED-R I had very little experience of the planning system when I started the role, so my legal research skills were really put to the test. My university studies had given me an excellent base, and work experience at the Law Commission and at Liberty furthered my ability to find up-to-date legal provisions, policy documents and other relevant resources. While a judicial assistant at the Court of Appeal, I produced briefing notes on cases, which included an assessment of the merits, through which I began to develop advisory skills. Advocacy and conferencing experience that I had gained through mooting, the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) and FRU gave me the confidence to present effective training workshops and discuss local concerns at community group meetings.
Describe a typical day at a Law Centre
GC It’s clichéd but there is no typical day! That’s what makes a Law Centre such an exciting environment to work in. But it is non-stop. On any given day you might be advising on the use of covert recordings of a HR meeting, drafting an ET1 or skeleton for a dispute in an employment tribunal, appearing in the employment tribunal, conducting back-to-back client meetings or advising on the effect of post-termination restrictions in a proposed settlement agreement.
ED-R A day in the life of a planning caseworker might run like this. On arriving at the Law Centre, I reply to an email from a local group asking for comments on its objection to a major planning application. Then I spend the rest of the morning working on the Law Centre’s response to the latest version of the new local plan, considering its compliance with the public sector equality duty. In the afternoon, I draft a briefing note for a barrister to advise on the merits of judicially reviewing a decision to grant planning permission for turning a Victorian scene-painting studio into flats and office space. I then prepare for a workshop I’m running in the evening, presenting the new local plan to local residents and explaining how to make written representations at the proposed submission version stage, including the different elements of the ‘soundness’ test.
What cases have you found memorable?
GC The cases that stick in your mind are those that feel hugely unjust but where you can do nothing to help, where there is a gap in the law and no amount of creative advocacy can find a solution. Take, for example, the two-year continuous service requirement in unfair dismissal law. There are many important exceptions to this rule but if, after a conference with a client, a data subject access request, various follow-ups and examination of all the documentation, you cannot find anything to bring the case within the exceptions to the two-year rule, you have to accept that you cannot bring an unfair dismissal claim. That’s hard to accept as an adviser and really hard for a client who may have lost their livelihood. Employment is bound up with a person’s sense of identity, security and self-worth. Losing that places a real strain on their health, relationships and self-esteem.
ED-R Many of the cases I worked on are still ongoing, and I continue to follow them with interest. One of these was the application to redevelop the shopping centre at Elephant and Castle. The planning committee finally resolved to grant planning permission in July 2018, but this is still subject to approval by the mayor of London. What made this case particularly memorable was how many different elements of the local community came together to seek a better deal from the redevelopment proposals – Latin American traders and local charity Latin Elephant, local residents including previous tenants and leaseholders of the neighbouring Heygate Estate, students from London College of Communication, local ward councillors and customers of the bingo hall and bowling alley – and seeing this collaboration manifested in some concessions made by the developer of the site.
What personal qualities do you need to work at a Law Centre?
ED-R One of the most important qualities you need is resilience. Taking on powerful and (comparatively) well-funded developers and public authorities will inevitably lead to setbacks and losses. In planning, the system is understandably stacked towards approving development, but this can make it hard for local voices to be heard and to achieve development that responds well to the existing built and social environment. Creativity is required to come up with arguments and challenges that would permit development proposals to be amended or refused. Time and resources will always be stretched, which requires recognising that not all requests for help can be accepted. Clients may be difficult or have unreasonable expectations of what can be achieved. Standing firm, expressing yourself confidently and managing expectations are all important aspects of the client relationship.
GC I think you need to be able to build a rapport with clients. That’s not to say that you need to come from the same background with the same life experiences, but you need to be grounded, interested in what makes people tick and able to listen and empathise. Ultimately, you need to be a trusted face in the provision of legal advice within the community.
What can Law Centre work provide to an aspiring lawyer that private practice can’t?
GC Law Centres are great for people who want to roll their sleeves up and get involved. You will be interviewing clients, drafting and providing advocacy from day one, as well as doing your own admin. Whoever your clients will be in future practice, this is really useful experience. I’d like aspiring barristers and solicitors to know that there is an alternative to paralegal work in the City after the BPTC or the Legal Practice Course (LPC).
ED-R As the only employee working on planning, reporting to the director of the Law Centre, my role gave me almost complete freedom to decide my work plan: which issues to focus on and when, and how to engage with the queries and requests I received. I therefore had a significantly greater degree of responsibility than a pre-qualification employee in private practice might have. Supporting the non-litigious aspects of the planning process gave me an understanding of the ways in which local people are affected by planning decision-making on a day-to-day basis, beyond appeals and judicial review.
What have you learnt from your time at a Law Centre?
ED-R As well as a good grounding in planning law, I have developed my client care and oral presentation skills, and gained practical first-hand experience of planning committee meetings, the local plan process and community activism in the field of planning. I also now have a much better understanding of the Law Centre movement and how it fits in with claimant litigation, free legal services and the tenant movement.
From a practical point of view, I gained experience across the full range of statutory and contractual employment claims. Employment status, discrimination, whistleblowing, wrongful and unfair dismissal, TUPE,1TUPE refers to the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 2006 SI No 246.
redundancy and territorial jurisdiction issues all featured heavily. I also think it’s given me a greater understanding of the immense pressures that solicitors are under. When a client walks through the door, emotions are still very raw and the problem hasn’t been sterilised in an ET1. You may be the first person they have spoken to who understands what is going on and what can be done. It’s a very privileged position to hold but it carries a lot of pressure beyond the requisite legal skills. You need to be a people person but you also need emotional resilience. On a more general level, I think I left with a greater sense of what the rule of law means in practice. By providing legal representation to those who cannot afford it or where legal aid is not available, Law Centres help ensure that rogue employers are held to account for breaching fundamental employment rights even where these fall outside the scope of legal aid.
How can chambers and firms support the Law Centre movement?
GC At present, very few chambers and solicitors’ firms take part in the Justice First Fellowship scheme. This is a scheme whereby successful applicants spend a year at a NfP organisation before undertaking a year-long pupillage or a two-year training contract either at a host organisation or split between the host organisation and a private practice firm. The scheme benefits host organisations like Law Centres in a number of ways, for example, by providing a steady supply of employees, something Law Centres can struggle with when competing against the larger salaries that private practice offers.
ED-R One of the main problems facing the Law Centre movement is a lack of resources, particularly with substantial cuts to legal aid in recent years. I was able to achieve a lot more at the Law Centre by passing on appropriate requests for legal support to barristers and solicitors who were willing to provide pro bono advice and/or representation. Private practice could reach out to Law Centres to create links in which such support can be offered. Chambers and solicitors’ firms could also extend their marketing programmes to Law Centre employees as well as private practice and local government lawyers: I gained a great deal from attending seminars organised by planning sets.
How can Law Centres advertise their roles to law graduates?
ED-R Law Centres should advertise their roles in the same ways that private law firms do: by attending law fairs, sending job adverts to universities (especially those offering the BPTC and/or LPC), the Law Society and the Inns of Court, and connecting with university careers services. They could establish links with university law clinics and offer law graduates the opportunity to shadow a Law Centre solicitor or caseworker for a few days. Solicitors’ firms could support these efforts by sending vacation scheme students to Law Centres for a day or two as part of the firm’s overall corporate social responsibility strategy, while chambers could inform future pupils of Law Centre opportunities in their particular field.
Any final thoughts?
GC Working in the NfP sector offers a real alternative to pursuing paralegal opportunities in private practice in the City. If you like responsibility, enjoy learning and have some advocacy or advisory experience under your belt, make the application.
ED-R Chambers and solicitors’ firms also stand to benefit from forging links with the Law Centre movement. Such benefits could be receiving instructions from new clients, broadening CSR and pro bono portfolios, and having pupils and trainees arrive with experience in a particular specialist field.