I recently left the legal aid profession due to financial concerns. I worked in this field for three years, firstly as a paralegal and then as a trainee solicitor. I handled my own busy caseload consisting of crime, police actions, human rights and civil liberties cases. Due to the low pay, I worked a second job too: twice a week, my working day would not end until 10pm. I sometimes worked weekends too.
Most of my clients suffered from mental illness or were dealing with very difficult circumstances. The cases I found most challenging to deal with were cases involving deaths in custody, as you saw the impact on the family and their grief, but you had to manage their expectations and prepare them for a very long road to getting answers and justice. Some of these cases go on for years, and it is especially difficult to watch a family go through so much and jump over so many hurdles before finding out what happened to their loved ones. Other cases I found challenging were cases of outright racism or violence towards vulnerable clients, particularly if I had to watch footage of the incidents.
I have now left the legal aid profession and moved to a corporate law firm due to financial concerns and instability. I am unable to live with my parents rent-free and I am financially responsible not just for myself but also for my parents and family who are working class, first generation immigrants to the UK. I was simply unable to cope with this financial responsibility on a legal aid salary.
I started off my legal career on £19,000 as a paralegal and had to push for this to go up to £21,000/£22,000 during my training contract. It was impossible for me to live on £19,000 in London and support myself and my family, so I have taken on various second jobs during my time in legal aid – I have worked as a private tutor and as a waitress alongside my full time job. To put this into perspective, I was earning more during my student job throughout my A Levels and university.
My student job led to a management job immediately after I graduated from university, which paid £32,000. Pursuing a career in legal aid involved taking a pay cut of over £10,000, as well as earning less than I made while I was a student aged 17/18. During the entire time I was in legal aid, I felt so worried about how I was going to support myself and my family that I often found it difficult to breathe or sleep. I knew I couldn’t go on like this – I remember thinking that I did not work this hard throughout school, college and university to achieve top grades so I could end up poorer than my parents, who never had the same opportunities in life as I have had.
It was my experience of growing up in one of the most deprived and working class areas of London which motivated me to go into a career in law in the first place – I wanted to represent the people whose rights I saw being violated as I was growing up. Yet sadly, I can no longer recommend this career path to students from working class backgrounds, or anyone who does not have a family who can afford to financially support them. My previous firm attended various events and functions aimed at encouraging a more diverse range of applicants in the legal aid sector, but I never took part – I could not stand in front of a crowd of young students from poorer backgrounds and tell them to enter this profession, knowing that they will never be able to afford a decent home to rent (let alone buy) or a decent life with this career if they did not have parents who could afford to support them. Sadly, I think this will deter many bright, talented people from entering this profession and working with clients who could benefit from their experience so much.
I now work in a corporate firm where my salary upon qualification will be just under £60,000. I feel a huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders and I am sleeping better as a result. However, I was terribly sad to have to leave my clients. I am trying to take on more pro bono work at my new firm so I am still able to help those less fortunate, which was my sole motivation for undertaking a law degree and entering the legal profession in the first place.
I am worried that legal aid cuts mean that those who are the most vulnerable will not be able to access a lawyer to secure their rights. Rights are worthless if they cannot be enforced.