There are now lots of glitzy legal awards ceremonies, but none of them has quite the magic or meaning of the Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year awards, says LAPG policy director Chris Minnoch
A family lawyer, a housing lawyer and a Legal Aid Practitioners Group staffer walked into a bar recently. No, this is not the start of a joke, but an anecdote about why LAPG’s Legal Aid Lawyers of the Year awards (LALYs) are so important.
Over a couple of locally crafted ales, we discussed the upcoming LALYs. The housing lawyer, who has worked tirelessly for his clients for more years than he’d wish to admit, was sceptical about the value of an awards ceremony that can, for very practical reasons, only celebrate a handful of the thousands of dedicated legal aid lawyers.
‘Doesn’t everyone who sticks with legal aid deserve a gong?’ he asked. I agreed with this wholeheartedly, because legal aid just gets more difficult, less viable and more stressful as the years go on. Legal aid lawyers strive day in, day out, to help vulnerable clients access the justice system and enforce their rights. Most do so knowing they will not be well rewarded financially, or given public recognition, or even recognition by those close to them.
They do it because it’s a vocation, a calling, something absolutely necessary to them, and because they cannot imagine what would happen to their clients if they couldn’t get the legal help they need. They work untold unpaid hours, and deal with mindboggling bureaucracy and risk, with ailing government IT systems, with constant legislative and policy reform, and with some of the most challenging clients and cases – and then they get up the next day and do it all over again.
So, yes, I agreed with my colleagues, all legal aid lawyers deserve a gong, and they all deserve the opportunity to come together once a year in a show of peer support and solidarity. And that is why LAPG created the LALYs 15 years ago, and why they have gone from strength to strength each year since. As legal aid has become more difficult to provide and so difficult to access, there is more need than ever before to celebrate the exceptional work of grassroots legal aid lawyers.
From the outset, the LALYs were designed to celebrate the work at the coalface, and let’s be honest, a lot of legal aid work is done right there in the pit. It’s seldom glamorous. It’s often back-breaking. Across the various award categories, we try to capture the full breadth and complexity of legal aid. We celebrate different aspects of the profession, with barristers, solicitors, legal executives, mediators, caseworkers, paralegals and whole teams/firms eligible to enter from across England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
In recent years, we’ve added an award category to celebrate innovative IT solutions, and each year the judging panel recognises the outstanding achievements of a team or individual who epitomises the dogged determination and commitment required to be a legal aid lawyer. Nominees come from big firms, SMEs, chambers, niche practices and not-for-profits. These are the lawyers who seek to transform the lives of their clients by being indefatigable at the coalface.
Whenever I’ve attended the LALYs, I’ve always been particularly struck by those shortlisted for the newcomer award. It’s so important that those new to the sector are celebrated as they are the future of our profession. Many will go on to run firms and charities, head up teams, found new initiatives and supervise and train budding legal aid lawyers. Some will head off into the world of politics or policy or run major campaigns. But almost all will, in one way or another, continue to make justice more accessible and society fairer. Aspiring legal aid lawyers face such considerable hurdles in terms of indebtedness, competition for places, firms having limited capacity to invest in trainees, and salaries that are dwarfed by their commercial counterparts. It takes a special kind of young lawyer to take on all the challenges that a career in legal aid entails – and that must be celebrated. Members of Young Legal Aid Lawyers pitch in to provide invaluable help in running the ceremony on the night, but all year around help us to keep our focus on the next generation of inspiring lawyers.
Another important aspect of the LALYs is its ability to positively influence the public perception of lawyers. Like many in the sector, I’m regularly frustrated that legal aid lawyers are denigrated in the press and by politicians looking to justify cuts. Those outside the sector struggle to understand what a legal aid lawyer does day-to-day and why advice and representation must remain a universal right. Some of our clients are easy targets for sections of the media. So, to have an award ceremony that celebrates commitment and courage, coupled with legal expertise, gives us all a chance to say ‘this is what we do and this is why we do it,’ and to counter the suggestion that being a lawyer is all about making money.
Most legal aid lawyers that I’ve worked with are self-effacing. You don’t get into legal aid for the glory, so I can understand why many are a little uncomfortable with the concept of awards. We also know that every industry is littered with awards ceremonies and some of them don’t reflect well on the industry or accurately recognise true excellence.
The LALY judges are acutely aware of the very particular strains on legal aid lawyers. But to recognise excellence and commitment we need peers and colleagues to make nominations. Some firms do put a tremendous amount of time and effort into creating their nominations. But there is nothing more powerful and persuasive than a well-written, heartfelt nomination from a colleague, supported by a testimonial or two from clients, simply explaining how their life changed by the nominee.
This year, for the first time, nominations are submitted online via our website (here). You have the facility to upload files, so please continue to submit nominations with supporting letters and testimonials from clients, colleagues, and others. Nominations close on 28 April 2017.
And as we did last year, we’re crowdfunding via Friends of LALY17 for sponsorship of the Legal Aid Newcomer award. As I write, we’re over halfway to our target, and more than 50 people have made donations. This level of support from across the profession is just another example of what makes the LALYs so special. Becoming a Friend of LALY17 is a fantastic opportunity to show your solidarity with aspiring legal aid lawyers. Donations are from just £10 and everyone who donates will have their name printed in the ceremony programme and shown on stage during presentation of the Legal Aid Newcomer award. More details can be found here. We’re taking donations up to 17 April 2017.
So, on July 5, in central London, 450 or so guests will come together to celebrate their friends and colleagues. Thousands more will join us on social media (one year, we were trending on Twitter above David Beckham). The steadfast support of our sponsors (see here for details) ensures we can keep the ticket price at a fraction of the cost of most legal awards ceremonies, and that we can offer a small number of free tickets to everyone shortlisted, so that everyone attending with the hope of winning has a fantastic cheering section. Tickets will go on sale from mid-May, after the publication of the shortlist.
You can be part of the 2017 LALYs by attending the ceremony, by supporting our crowdfunding initiative, by nominating a colleague or your own firm or organisation, or by spreading the word and encouraging others to nominate.
Help us to celebrate the amazing work of legal aid lawyers – every one of them deserves it.
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