Any young legal aid lawyer can tell you what the Legal Aid Agency’s (LAA’s) hold music is: the plinky-plonky piano, or, for the more seasoned holders among us, Rodrigo’s Spanish guitar. We know this because we hear it a lot. Dealing with funding matters is typically the work of junior practitioners. The phrase ‘legal aid front line’ may conjure up images of noble warriors on the battlefield, fighting for justice, but for YLAL’s members, at least, the reality is listening to short loops of music courtesy of the LAA while we dream of getting on with real casework.
The daily grind for legal aid lawyers isn’t glamorous, which is probably why there hasn’t been a prime-time drama made about it (yet). Those tasks we describe are a small part of the broader picture of our working lives and the myriad pressures we are under: to secure public funding, manage large numbers of complex cases and deal with highly vulnerable clients, all while being model junior lawyers whom we hope firms or chambers will want to keep on. This all has an impact on our well-being and, in turn, our ability to do our jobs.
One particular pressure is created by the so-called ‘culture of refusal’ at the LAA. The Guardian
’s Owen Bowcott reported in June 2019 about the fall in successful applications for legal aid in homelessness cases,1‘Homelessness lawyers complain of legal aid “culture of refusal”’, Guardian, 26 June 2019.
which housing practitioner Simon Mullings described in a recent Justice Gap
article2‘Legal aid deserts and a culture of refusal’, The Justice Gap, 2 March 2020.
as reflecting ‘a feeling amongst lawyers acting for homeless people that in addition to the deeply damaging LASPO3Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.
reforms, a cultural imperative to refuse legal aid had taken hold at the LAA, at the behest, implicitly or explicitly of the Ministry of Justice’. At an event organised by Garden Court Chambers on 27 February 2020 centring on the culture of refusal, YLAL’s Ollie Persey spoke of its impact on junior legal aid lawyers (see also page 7
of this issue).
Negative decision-making and delays at the LAA leave lawyers wanting to promote their clients’ best interests but being prevented from doing so due to a lack of funding. Firms often have to decide whether to work ‘at risk’ of not being paid.4See July/August 2019 Legal Action 16.
Junior lawyers frequently bear the brunt of this broken system. The power dynamic plays out keenly: we must work late or at weekends to prove to our firms and chambers that we are worthy of their investment in us, but we also do this in order to undertake urgent or necessary work for which we know we (not to mention our employers) won't be paid.
Under pressure to meet time and costs targets, our members tend towards under-recording the time it takes them to do work that is more onerous than their employers or the LAA give credit for. This places a burden on us to make up time elsewhere (ie, in our personal time), and gives firms, chambers and the Ministry of Justice an unrealistic picture of the work that these matters necessarily require.
The impact on junior practitioners’ well-being is evident. In 2019, The Law Society’s Junior Lawyers Division (JLD) surveyed its members and found that over 93 per cent of respondents had experienced stress in their roles in the previous month.5JLD resilience and wellbeing survey report 2019, JLD, 2019.
Stress, burnout and vicarious trauma are especially prevalent among legal aid lawyers, not only because the work itself is challenging, but because it is set against a backdrop of countless other external pressures. We’re expected to work harder, faster and longer for less pay and fewer returns. We are in a caring profession so our tendency is often to put our clients’ interests before our own. Taking care of ourselves becomes an afterthought.
Those making noise about well-being largely seem to be at the junior end of the profession (see page 10 of this issue
for an exception): running surveys, holding events to discuss the issue and launching initiatives, such as Claiming Space
, to promote a better understanding of self-care. We’re not ‘snowflakes’ – fragile millennials who can’t handle the heat; rather, we have a strong sense that the unrealistic demands on us aren’t healthy or sustainable. We want to be the future of the profession, but we’re caught between a rock and a hard place and, frankly, we’re tired of being told to take bubble baths to deal with the stress.
In her much-vaunted piece for Counsel
magazine,6‘A junior’s diary: Mary-Rachel McCabe’, Counsel, December 2019.
Mary-Rachel McCabe, a junior barrister at Doughty Street Chambers, described what well-being looked like to her: small things, like being able to take a walk outside away from her desk every day, and not having to work while on holiday. These are not unrealistic.
YLAL believes that raising these issues and effecting change cannot continue being the responsibility of junior lawyers alone. Unless lawyers of great seniority start talking honestly and openly about well-being, and until we resolutely work towards promoting it at all stages of the profession, the truth is that we will continue to prop up a broken justice system: one whose functionality is predicated on the unhealthy working practices of junior lawyers.