November 30 2023

Proof magazine: Who are you calling fat cats?

Proof magazine: Who are you calling fat cats?

Life in the justice gap: illustration from Proof magazine, issue 3. Simon Pemberton

Proof magazine: Who are you calling fat cats?

Far from being fat cats, many lawyers struggle to earn minimum wage at the start of their careers. Oliver Carter, Ronagh Craddock, Rachel Francis, and Siobhan Taylor-Ward –Young Legal Aid Lawyers’ committee members – report on new research into social mobility and diversity

‘We need to open up our legal system so that it draws from all available talent in our society. The Prime Minister has outlined her vision for a country where merit matters more than background… . So we will be working to break down barriers.’
Elizabeth Truss, Lord Chancellor, October 2016

At Young Legal Aid Lawyers, we share the Lord Chancellor’s vision of a legal profession which is truly open to everyone regardless of background. In recent months, we have carried out research into the state of access to the profession – and the particular challenges facing aspiring and junior legal aid lawyers – in order to build on our previous social mobility and diversity reports.

Our latest study addresses access to the legal profession in the age of austerity, and reveals that there remain significant obstacles to lawyers hoping to work in the legal aid sector which, in our view, can only be overcome with urgent action by the government, regulators and employers.

A full version of this article appear in the latest  issue of Proof Life in the Justice Gap: Why legal aid matters.

Proof is the print magazine of the Justice Gap.  The latest issue features contributions from Helena Kennedy QC, Martha Spurrier, Lord Tony Gifford QC as well as journalists including the Guardian’s David Conn and Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi who has written an extended article reporting from the frontline of the legal aid cuts. The cover and Rebecca’s article is illustrated by the award-winning artist Simon Pemberton.


Who are young legal aid lawyers?
As an organisation, Young Legal Aid Lawyers (YLAL) was formed in 2005 and now has over 2,800 members. Our members include students, paralegals, trainee solicitors, pupil barristers and qualified junior lawyers. We are united by a belief that the provision of good quality publicly funded legal help is essential to protecting the interests of the vulnerable in society and upholding the rule of law.

As a group, we are a fairly diverse bunch. The majority of respondents in response to our survey identified as female (78%) and just over half were aged 20 to 29 years. In terms of ethnicity, close to three-quarters of respondents to the survey identified as white, 12% as black, 8% as Asian and 4% as mixed race.

According to the 2011 census, 87% of people in the UK are white, 3% are black, 7% are Asian and 2% are mixed race. Both women and people from black and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds are over-represented among YLAL members compared to the general population; whereas people with disabilities are under-represented among our membership of aspiring and junior lawyers.

Social mobility in the age of austerity
Our previous report on social mobility and diversity in the legal aid sector, One Step Forwards, Two Steps Back, was published in October 2013. Its main findings were as follows:

  • High levels of debt combined with low salaries make legal aid work unsustainable for those from a poorer socio-economic background;
  • Unpaid work experience represents a barrier to social mobility; and
  • Work experience is a pre-requisite to entry to the legal aid profession.

Since that time, the cap on university tuition fees in England has increased from £3,225 to £9,000 per annum and significant cuts have been made to both civil and criminal legal aid.

The 2013 cuts to the scope of civil legal aid mean that advice providers, law firms and barristers’ chambers carrying out publicly funded work are under increasing financial pressure. The knock-on effect of this is to restrict the number of training contracts for solicitors and pupillages (the practical training stage required for barristers) and ensure that the salaries of junior lawyers remain low.

In criminal legal aid, the situation is even worse. Following concerted opposition (see page 58), the then Lord Chancellor Michael Gove last year scrapped a major overhaul of the market and suspended a second 8.75% fee cut. As reported elsewhere, further major reforms are currently being consulted upon and there is the possibility that the cut could be reinstated.We believe that concerns about social mobility in the profession and the long-term sustainability of publicly funded criminal advice and representation should be at the forefront of politicians’ minds.

Recent research by the Sutton Trust illustrated the extent to which the senior ranks of many professions remain dominated by people who attended fee-paying schools. In 2015, three-quarters of senior judges (74%), 71% of the top 100 ranked QCs and 32% of partner-level solicitors went to fee-paying schools, compared with just 7% of the general population.

To some extent, the over-representation of those from fee-paying secondary schools in the legal profession is reflected in our membership: 20% of respondents reported that they attended private or fee-paying grammar schools, whereas 54% attended comprehensives and 17% attended state or non-fee-paying grammar schools. Almost all of our members (98.5%) are either university graduates or current university students.

Postgraduate course fees present a significant barrier to the profession. Many of our members have relied on financial support from their family or loans to complete their legal education.

The vast majority of our members (79%) have debt exceeding £20,000, with 10% having over £50,000 of debt. The position has clearly worsened since our 2013 report, when 65% of respondents had debts in excess of £15,000.

These levels of debt might not be such a problem if junior lawyers in the legal aid sector were adequately remunerated. However, our survey found that 25% of respondents were earning £15,000 or less per annum, with a further 42% earning between £15,001 and £20,000.

To put this into context, a person aged 25 or over working full-time and receiving the national minimum wage of £7.50 would earn £13,650. Someone earning the ‘real’ living wage set by the Living Wage Foundation based on what people actually need to live would earn £15,379 outside London (£8.45 per hour) or £17,745 in London (£9.75 per hour). This suggests a quarter of our members are currently paid less than the real cost of living.

Overall, 87% of respondents were earning £25,000 or less (up from 67% from our 2013 report), and only 2.5% were earning over £35,000. One respondent who had left legal aid work in 2011 noted that while in the sector, their salary had been £21,000 for five years with no increase.

Another is currently paid £8.75 per hour on a part-time basis and pays £7.50 per hour for childcare – relying on income support, child tax credit and housing benefit to survive. If this is what it means to be a ‘fat cat’ legal aid lawyer in the eyes of some politicians and sections of the press, our members are entitled to feel short-changed.

These statistics demonstrate why the vast majority of our members (86%) believe there should be a minimum salary for trainee solicitors.

The lack of adequate remuneration is not the only obstacle facing young legal aid lawyers, but it is considered the most important; when asked to identify the biggest professional challenge facing them, our members responded as follows: underpaid (34%), stress (21%), workload (11%) and long hours (8%).

The problems created by ever-increasing course fees and inadequate remuneration are exacerbated for many by the need to undertake unpaid work experience. Our survey revealed that 74% of respondents had completed unpaid legal work experience. Almost one third of respondents (29%) have used family connections to secure paid or unpaid work experience.

What next?
Successive cuts to publicly funded law have undoubtedly had a deterrent effect on the next generation of legal aid lawyers. We urge the government to recognise the need for a new generation of lawyers to ensure there is a sustainable legal aid system in its review of LASPO.

While we recognise the financial pressures facing employers in the legal aid sector, it is incumbent upon employers that work experience is offered on a fair and non-exploitative basis; unfortunately, we are anecdotally aware of members carrying out months of unpaid work with no reward but the vague promise of paid employment in future as a paralegal or trainee solicitor.

So why do we work in legal aid? ‘I believe in access to justice for all. I work with people who, because of their circumstances, come into contact with institutions and public services that make them more vulnerable to social injustice,’ one YLAL member said. ‘More than anyone, they need good legal representation, but they are least able to afford it.

The age of austerity has undeniably taken a huge toll on the legal aid sector. It has done so primarily by denying justice to hundreds of thousands of people whose cases are no longer within the scope of legal aid, but there is also a longer-term threat to the sustainability of publicly funded legal advice and representation.

If talented young lawyers are not willing or able to work in legal aid due to the a devastating combination of high course fees, unpaid work experience and inadequate remuneration, society as a whole will be weaker for it. We believe that cuts to legal aid undermine the viability of the profession and the rule of law. We will use our report to challenge the status quo and to hold the Lord Chancellor and others to account.

YLAL survey: Young, gifted and broke

  • Almost eight out of 10 of young legal aid lawyers (79%) had debt exceeding £20,000
  • One in four respondents were earning £15,000 or less per annum
  • Almost nine out of 10 respondents (87%) were earning £25,000 or less
  • Almost three quarters of respondents (74%) had undertaken unpaid legal work experience
  • Almost one third of respondents (29%) had used family connections to secure paid or unpaid work experience
  • Almost nine out of 10 respondents (86%) believed there should be a minimum salary for trainee solicitors
  • Young legal aid lawyers identified the biggest professional challenges as pay (34%); stress (21%); workload (11%); and long hours (8%)