Nothing in her previous career as a city lawyer prepared Emily-Anna Gibbs for the long hours and stress of working in legal aid. Here, she explains how and why she made the switch. (Pic: Onfokus)
Ten years ago, I was working as a newly-qualified solicitor at the international firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer. My colleagues in London numbered many hundreds; the firm had a huge network of lawyers across Europe; and Freshfields has offices across the world. Now, I am one of seven lawyers working for a niche legal charity in north London, the Anti Trafficking and Labour Exploitation Unit, which I co-founded in 2012 alongside four others.
In recent years, it has become relatively unusual for lawyers to change track between the commercial and the social welfare sector. Certainly, I rarely encounter solicitors who have made the change in recent years. How – and why – did I do it?
Going back to the beginning: I had decided to take up a training contract at Freshfields rather unthinkingly, because it was a ‘top firm’, and because of the lure of a large salary. But I was sceptical from the outset about whether I would ever be able to commit to the world of corporate law. I knew I had to keep my options open. After seats in corporate, financial services/regulatory, structured finance and tax, I had the fortune of two very supportive supervisors in the employment team, and I secured a position in that department post-qualification.
During the two years I worked at Freshfields after qualifying, I was thinly spread over employment, pensions and benefits, and much of my work involved supporting the corporate department on large transactions, which gave me little exposure to the rigors of employment litigation and inevitably limited my learning on employment law. However, the departmental training in this area was first rate, and doing pro bono work was encouraged. I took cases through the Free Representation Unit, participated in a telephone advice line coordinated by BPP Law School and started volunteering at an evening drop-in advice session at Camden Community Law Centre.
Doing this on top my normal work was exhausting, but it gave me a first-hand experience of the power of the law to effect positive change in people’s lives, and indeed of the complex legal problems encountered by ordinary people, little able to pay for legal advice. I had a number of inspiring encounters, including a conversation with someone who had long worked as a welfare benefits adviser in a mental health unit. I realised that the high-profile civil liberties firms were only one part of the picture, and that there was a huge need for lawyers ready and willing to commit themselves to advising others on pressing social welfare issues.
Through volunteering at CCLC I learned about a temporary, part time vacancy at North Kensington Law Centre. In interview, I was able to demonstrate sufficient knowledge of employment law and litigation, and I was recruited to replace Jamila Duncan-Bosu who, as part of her training contract, had to leave the employment department for a short period to get experience in another area of law. Rather tentatively, I suspect, she left a large and complex caseload in my hands – the hands of a junior city lawyer, with only limited experience of “real” employment litigation.
I soon learned that the position I had been recruited to fill was part-time because of funding constraints, rather than because of the realities of what was needed for the role. And I faced the reality of receiving a full-time equivalent salary that was a third that of my Freshfields leaving salary (though the money I had managed to save during my four years at Freshfields provided a substantial buffer).
That was my first lucky break, and from then on, one led to another, facilitated by bone-headed determination on my part and an unwillingness to stop something I had started. After Jamila returned to her employment seat, I was able to convince the law centre’s director to keep me on a longer-term basis, although still only part time, but I was later made redundant for a short period when the law centre ran out of funds to pay me. That didn’t stop me coming into work and keeping on my cases for a time on a voluntary basis, in the hope that I would secure another paid position when the funds became available. My determination paid off: I was given another position (again part time) as immigration solicitor under the excellent supervision of Clara Connolly, when a previous (full time) immigration solicitor left.
So started my history of doing ‘a little bit of everything’, and soon I was working full time across the employment and immigration departments.
The law centre was in a state of flux at this time. My colleagues Juliette Nash and Jamila Duncan-Bosu in the employment department had developed a particular expertise representing trafficked overseas domestic workers in employment tribunal claims against their traffickers. Clara, in immigration, had years of experience representing victims of gender-based violence including trafficking. The two departments were moving closer together and I was able to help with this process and to participate in the inception of a holistic service dedicated to victims of trafficking, which is what ATLEU now offers.
I am sometimes asked what advice I would give to others hoping to make a similar change. There are a number of factors that are crucial.
- Be brave but also pragmatic about what steps you take: in my case it was crucial that I accepted the immigration job when it came up, although this had not been any part of my plan, previously.
- Accept that sometimes things will be very tough: most areas of social welfare law are complex, demanding and stressful even for those who have a lot of experience. I had no experience of immigration work at all when I inherited a caseload of about 100 clients, to be managed on a part-time basis.
- Accept that social welfare law inevitably means legal aid law, and that legal aid law is a hugely complex practice area in itself which makes massive demands on your time and involves huge frustrations and risks, all for the prize of a dismal (approx) £50 an hour. Your salary will always be greatly constrained by this, and many organisations funded by legal aid contracts face huge financial threats, sometimes on a monthly basis. This adds a pressure to working life that has no parallel in large, well-funded firms.
- Know that it is the time you give, and the commitment you make, to clients – far more than the lines on your CV, that will be crucial to your – and your clients’ successes in this field.
It was only when I worked at the law centre that I really learned the meaning of pressure and long hours. For me, at least, the intense pressures of life in a city law firm was nothing compared to the pressure of representing so many vulnerable people and having the potential (with the risk this entails) of helping effect positive change in their lives.
I got very lucky finding myself at the law centre, working in the team that I did, and we were lucky to be later joined by another member who brought a huge amount of experience that proved crucial to our success as a unit. Without this stroke of luck – as well as the determination, commitment and a certain amount of pain described – I would not rate my chances of having survived the 2013 legal aid changes.