If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.
There is no shortage of giants in the legal aid field. As the Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year awards remind us each summer, our profession is fortunate to be peopled by practitioners who go above and beyond to deliver justice for the most disadvantaged in our society, and whose work sets inspiring examples for their fellows. Those who are just starting out – law students, career changers, those in entry-level roles – look to them with admiration, wondering whether (and how) they can ever reach their dizzy heights. Being two trainee solicitors (Lucie and Katie) and a recently qualified barrister (Ollie), memories of overcoming the challenges of getting into legal aid work are still painfully fresh for us. It is important both personally and as YLAL co-chairs that we are able to provide our members with the support and encouragement that they need to become future legal aid giants.
Unlike other areas of law, there isn’t a set route for legal aid lawyers. We have to make our own paths, seek out knowledge, get experience where we can, make contacts, and find or invent opportunities for ourselves. At times, it feels like a relentless journey during which the ultimate prize – pupillage or a training contract – can seem desperately far away, sometimes nigh-on impossible. Without the ear of someone who has been there themselves, it can also be a lonely experience.
Mentors – whether formal or informal – can act as invaluable guides along the course of this rough terrain. YLAL runs a popular mentoring scheme
that matches new entrants with seasoned practitioners, aiming to provide aspiring legal aid lawyers with an opportunity to develop their understanding of life in practice. It is an informal scheme: though we provide guidance for mentors
, we mostly leave both parties to build a relationship that works best for them.
YLAL’s mentoring scheme serves a number of important functions. First and foremost, it gives young legal aid lawyers access to advice and support from others within the field who have valuable experience and knowledge to share. Whether it’s a second pair of eyes to look over a CV, interview tips, nuggets of knowledge on where to find entry-level positions or how best to negotiate a tricky professional relationship, there are a host of ways in which mentors can help their more junior peers. Second, supporting the junior arm of our profession to go on to pursue successful careers as legal aid lawyers reaps long-term benefits. Quite simply, it ensures the continuity of our profession, and promotes vital social mobility. The importance of enabling individuals from non-traditional backgrounds to access the profession, starting with obtaining guidance from practising lawyers, cannot be overstated.
One benefit that is often overlooked is that which mentors can gain from their mentees. The rewards are many. It is a fine thing to see the self-confidence of a mentee grow as they embrace new challenges, battle setbacks and ultimately progress to where they want to be. Beyond that, mentoring is a two-way street: mentors often learn as much from their mentees as the other way around. By hearing from newer entrants about the challenges they face, mentors may be inspired to push for change in respect of pay, conditions or recruitment practices in their workplaces, or they may decide to make changes to the way they supervise those who are more junior than them. If the pressures of work have distanced them from what originally drove them to forge a career in legal aid, engaging with someone who is idealistic and enthusiastic can reignite their passion and commitment. Mentoring can also serve as a useful reminder of what a privilege it is to be able to help our clients obtain justice, which is what makes this work so necessary and rewarding.
Perhaps reading this has reminded you of a mentor who has helped you along the way? A teacher, friend, supervisor or peer whose positive influence has steered you in the right direction, who has counselled you against making missteps, or helped you out when you have? Someone who has provided constructive criticism of your work, or just offered a listening ear when you needed it most? We can probably all think of someone who has made that difference for us.
If this raises a glimmer of recognition for you, let 2020 be the year that you resolve to become a YLAL mentor, and pass on your wisdom, experience and advice to the individuals who represent the future of our profession. Demand for YLAL mentors currently far outstrips supply, and we are always looking for new mentors who can help. The scheme itself is very flexible: it doesn’t matter where in the country you are based, as mentoring generally takes place over email. Face-to-face meetings, perhaps over a coffee, can be a good place to start if you happen to be in the same city, and we do endeavour to match people in roughly the same geographic area. Seniority is no barrier either: from legal aid giants to relative newbies, your support for an aspiring legal aid lawyer could be invaluable.
Equally, if you feel that you would benefit from being mentored, then we would love to hear from you. Further information about the scheme and to sign up as either a mentor or mentee can be found on our website
, and we look forward very much to hearing from you. Together, we can build a strong, supportive network – and perhaps even produce some future LALY award winners too.