YLAL Student Takeover: Resilience in a Legal Aid Career

On 8 July 2020, YLAL hosted a 'Student Takeover' event. The event featured a panel of students and practitioners. The practitioners discussed their legal aid careers and resilience in the face of challenges. 

The meeting was chaired by Hafsah Hussain, a recent BPTC graduate, and featured a panel consisting of current students posing questions to legal professionals. 

The first pairing was Joe Berry Jones and Thembi Fakoya-Sales. Joe is a recent LPC graduate from the University of Law, and currently a Paralegal at Hopleys GMA Solicitors in South Wales. Thembi is a Solicitor at Mary Ward Legal Centre and is a former Justice First fellow specialising in Housing and Public law. Joe's first question concerned resilience in the housing and public law sector, and he asked Thembi about what had personally increased her resilience. She recommended establishing a self-care routine to help deal with the emotional difficulties of a legal aid career. She also advocated that practitioners should try not to take their work home with them, as it is easy to lose the work-home balance, acknowledging that this is much more difficult in a pandemic! Her answer to Joe's next question, about the importance of volunteering, detailed that volunteering is essential for demonstrating a commitment to the legal aid sector. Thembi referred to her own positive experience volunteering at Just for Kids Law and outlined that most jobs will require experience at Citizens' Advice Bureau, or as a Paralegal, and that many legal aid firms will hire exclusively from Paralegals for Training Contracts. Joe's next question asked what the main challenges were to the housing and public law sector at the moment. In her answer, Thembi referred to job retention, resilience, volunteering, burn-out, funding, social mobility in the sector. Thembi then answered a question concerning what students could do to help prepare for the challenges of a career in legal aid. She suggested volunteering, as through this you can make sure that this is a career that you definitely want to do. In terms of advising her past self, Thembi said that she would tell herself to take your time to develop as a person, and not rush into anything. She outlined that this makes you better and more resilient and that for her, qualifying later made her better and much more capable than many of her peers who qualified with much less experience. Joe's last question was about what excites Thembi in the future for housing and the public law sector. Thembi responded that she is excited about hopefully getting rid of Section 21 evictions, and spoke about the Fitness for Human Habitation Act 2019 which has recently come in, and also the regulations and public law challenges that will occur due to Brexit. Then, Hafsah asked Thembi to speak about her project for Justice First. Thembi told us that you are required to prepare a pitch to increase social justice at the workplace, which she centred around legal advice in the digital age and trying to digitalise advice so that clients could see their lawyers. 

The second pairing was Alice Norga and Amie Higgins. Alice is a second-year LLB student at the London School of Economics, and Amie is an Immigration Solicitor/Training Lead at Anti-Trafficking and Labour Exploitation Unit (ATLEU) and Director of Bankfield Heath Solicitors. Alice's first question asked Amie to outline her career so far. She told us that she initially aspired to a career in the Bar, but then worked at a high street solicitors' firm with a large immigration department and cross qualified as a solicitor. She set up her own firm in 2012, specialising in human rights and asylum, but then moved to ATLEU once she had her son. Alice then asked Amie whether legal aid had made her a more resilient person. Amie answered that to work in legal aid, resilience is an essential skill. She referred to the difficulties of the LAA and obtaining ECF, the funding cuts, and the constant battles with the Home Office. In terms of practical tips and insights on how to preserve positivity and optimism, Amie advocated that it is important to try and switch off, but advised that this is difficult. She suggested having distractions such as hobbies to take your mind off work and help you to stay emotionally separate from the client. Alice's next question asked whether there was ever a moment that Amie lost faith and how she managed to overcome it. Amie referred to one immigration removal case at the start of her career where she had applied for an injunction to stop a removal but it was refused. It took her by surprise and meant that she could not speak to her client who was removed immediately. She said that she learned from this experience that you can't win every case, but that it is important to carry on fighting. Alice's final question was about the similarities between adaptability and resilience. Amie answered that it is important to have the resilience to accept that life might take you down different routes and may differ from your initial path. She advocated the importance of holding onto core beliefs.

The third pairing was Holly Girven and Zeenat Islam. Holly is a BPTC student at the University of Law, and Zeenat is a Barrister at 25 Bedford Row and junior counsel to the Grenfell Tower Inquiry. For her first question, Holly asked about Zeenat's life before the Bar and how she knew that she wanted to be a Barrister. Zeenat began by detailing her career trajectory, which included a first-class undergraduate Law degree at Warwick University, volunteering in Palestine and Lebanon, a Masters in Public and International Law at LSE, BPTC, and pupillage, amongst many other achievements! She explained that she had always wanted to be a Barrister due to her passion for advocating for people. Holly then asked why Zeenat had chosen legal aid and not commercial law. Zeenat responded that her interest in becoming a Barrister had been motivated by a sense of injustice and that as a Muslim woman in the aftermath of 9/11, her journey had been shaped by challenging injustices in her community and other marginalised voices. Next, Zeenat was asked about why she moved from criminal law to the Grenfell Enquiry, to which she answered that the opportunity materialised, and that she believes that diversifying skillsets is very important. Holly's following question was about Zeenat's biggest setbacks in her career, and how she overcame these. Zeenat answered that she experienced a lack of mentorship once she had decided to become a Barrister, which she found very isolating. She added that she experiences sexist, racist, and islamophobic comments which is very difficult, but that it is important to find your own way of navigating these difficulties. Holly's last question was asking Zeenat about her project 'Learning for Lawyers: Redefined.' This is a platform for aspiring lawyers from underrepresented backgrounds, that offers webinars and masterclasses. The panels are from mixed ethnic, religious, and socio-economic backgrounds. The emphasis is on professional and personal development, and on redefining traditional education and exclusivity.

The fourth pairing was Beth Stirling and Sophie Kenny. Beth is a Court of Protection Legal Assistant at Shoosmiths and a part-time BPTC student at the University of Law, and Sophie is a Pupil Barrister at 30 Park Place Chambers and is ex-British Army. The first question that Beth asked Sophie was what made her decide to pursue a career in law. Sophie detailed that she had always been interested in the justice system, potentially due to her family connections to law and that she was attracted to a law career as she had many transferable skills from her career in military intelligence. These skills were strong self-discipline, determination, people skills, and communication skills. Sophie also added that she views her vocation as a privilege, as she meets people from all walks of life every day and can be their voice and help them. Beth's next question was about Sophie's biggest challenge at the Bar, and what kinds of obstacles Sophie had faced. She outlined that her socio-economic background was the most significant setback that she had faced. Sophie detailed that, as a working-class woman from Alden in Manchester, she was not encouraged by anyone apart from her family to pursue a career in the law and that she has often, as a result, felt very out of place. She recommended for anyone else feeling a similar way to remind themselves of what they are capable of, and to work on their self-confidence: 'be your own biggest fan'! Sophie referred to how low self-esteem can be very ingrained in the legal profession, and that it is important to not compare yourself to others and to be more positive with yourself and what experiences you have to offer. Beth then asked Sophie about how past experiences had helped in her legal career. Sophie answered by referring to the fact that the Bar is a lifestyle choice, and that being in the military gave her perspective which others may not have. She recounted that she believes that her military career enhanced her people skills, and also the ability to consume large amounts of information very quickly. For her last question, Beth asked whether Sophie had any tips for building emotional resilience in a legal aid career. Sophie responded by suggesting a self-care routine, using the example of herself doing regular yoga. She also recommended talking to family and colleagues, and to remember that it is impossible to help everyone and that you can't do everything. 

Next, Hafsah asked for suggestions for a way to pick yourself up if you are struggling with wellbeing. Zeenat recommended creating a 'happy list': a place to put things that make you happy and that you are grateful for. 

Then, other students submitted questions to the panel. An LPC student currently looking for a Paralegal role asked the panel what their prospects were due to COVID-19, and what they could do to improve their chances in an increasingly competitive job market. Amie recommended that this student should build up their experience by volunteering, sending their CV, and letters to local firms. She advised them to choose firms that they shared an ethos with and which specialised in areas of law that the student was committed to. Another student asked Thembi about the process of the Justice First fellowship. Thembi explained that hosts offer training contracts through the website. In the first stage, you are required to answer five questions: no personal information is sent at this stage. You are then shortlisted and asked for an interview. You can only apply for one post, and the application is open for a month. You also need to have completed your LPC before applying. A third student asked Sophie how she processed pupillage rejections, to which Sophie answered that she did not process these very well, and found the lack of feedback very difficult. She also reminded us that pupillage rejections are often not personal, a minor factor could be the reason for the rejection and told us not to lose hope! The final question posed to the panel of legal professionals was on how to maintain perspective on the big picture on dismantling racist or oppressive legal systems. Thembi answered first, relating that this was a massive issue in the legal sector and that racism is present in the judicial system, which is very flawed. She added that it was not always outright discrimination and that it is very important to 'call it as you see it'. Amie referred to the importance of playing a role in fighting a racist and oppressive system. Zeenat asked us to remember that we are part of the system and that many lawyers do not do enough to fix the problems, and simply reinforce the pre-existing issues.

As pointed out by Hafsah, the common theme of the answers to the student questions was that none of the legal journeys spoken about were linear, but that all of these legal professionals ended up in careers that they enjoy. In relation to resilience, Hafsah referred to one of her tutors at university who told her that resilience is a part of calling on others for support, and that if you don't make changes it can cause more harm than good. 

Hafsah ended the virtual meeting with the poem 'Should we stay silent?' by Bethany Parr, featured in the Lockdown Lawyers anthology

We are very grateful to YLAL member Lucie Betts for this write-up. If you'd like to volunteer to write up a future YLAL event, email ylalinfo@gmail.com.