Can you afford to be a Criminal legal aid lawyer?

I used to be a local government lawyer – but the problem was that I was jealous of my opponents. I wanted their independence – and I really liked the way they could get justice for vulnerable people.

I think I was looking to be the hero of the story – and not the sometime villain.

Who wants to be a legal aid hero?

But I didn’t realise, that like on the plane when the oxygen masks drop, you need to save yourself before you can save anyone else.

Here’s the reality most qualified lawyers don’t want to think about – even if you do pass your degree, pass your Bar / Solicitor’s exams and even if you get your pupillage / contract – is it worth it if at the end of it all, you can’t pay your bills? Is the hero “hit” something you can afford to chase?

I’ve worked as a legal aid Housing solicitor and barrister – as well as a Criminal legal aid barrister. The work is amazing – and there’s nothing like helping your client stand up to injustice and prevail.

And from that legal aid experience I learned two things:

1. Unless I can live on a third of my takings, I can’t live on my takings; and

2. My clients are the heroes of their own stories. I’m simply the guide.

A third of nothing is still nothing (One for the wannabe Criminal Barristers)

These lawyers say they are earning less than minimum wage.

Yet there are students out there who think that if they just try hard enough, things will be different for them.

They do not realise (or care) that the cards are stacked against them.

Here’s the point: It’s not about how “hard” you work or how “good” you are. As long as you are renting your time for cash, there is only so much that is humanly possible to do in a day.

In Criminal legal aid world, you might get £50.00 for a first appearance. For a trial, even where someone’s liberty is on the line, you might get £150.00 (Yes, the decimal point is in the right place).

I say, “might” because some chambers still pimp out pupils for free in return for favoured chambers status and Crown Court work. This means that you may have thousands in aged debt – but you are unlikely in this lifetime to ever realise it. You may never get paid for the work you do.

Maybe you will recover some of your derisory fees – but it is likely that you will spend more time chasing those fees than the actual time you put in on the case.

Meanwhile, you will be expected to cover your own costs of doing business (travel, food etc) as well as covering your income tax and VAT bill.

So you can imagine the look on one Criminal law pupil’s face when I told him about my 1/3rd principle.

One third for taxes (because people forget that it’s National Insurance contributions, as well as income tax and VAT), one third for life and the final third for savings.

“Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked”. Warren Buffett

Criminal legal aid barristers, more than anybody, need an emergency fund.

Because self-employed life means you’re especially vulnerable to unforeseen events, (such as a world-wide pandemic) there has to be a buffer between you and the street – or between you and your next meal. Many barristers have not been eligible for any government subsidies during Covid 19 – and a few barristers I know have completely disappeared off radar.

This is why a hand to mouth Criminal legal aid business model is unsustainable. If you can’t even save for a rainy day because every day is a hurricane, and just surviving (much less winning the case) is high stress, how much do you really think you can take before you burn out or melt down?

PS. We don’t need another hero

You may think you’re Luke Skywalker – but what your client really needs is Yoda.

I say this because the narrative the Criminal Bar likes to put out is that we are the heroes – or the victims – of a steady drip of legal aid cuts.

We buy this narrative – but the public switch off – so we just work harder. Even worse, some of us will get so involved with our lay clients’ lives, they we forget we are lawyers – and not social workers or de facto parents…

Pupil Crime barristers will work their socks off over many hours (sometimes months) for that £150.00 trial – and it’s not sustainable. They burn out and look for a job with a salary – or find their way into other areas of work.

The Criminal Bar then wrings its hands about “the future of the profession” and the cycle begins again with the next round of pupil barristers.

The problem is that the Bar and Chambers’ training model hasn’t changed much from the 90s, when the erosion of legal aid started.

While I may think it’s a great idea for pupil barristers to emulate the old fashioned two-year, four-seat trainee solicitor model, ensuring a grounding in more than just Crime, the point is that we are not set up that way – and if you are in a Criminal set, you are going to get your baptism by fire in legal aided Crime.

FWIW, being a Criminal legal aid barrister is probably the best way to learn, “on your feet can deal with anything” advocacy fast. (Try arguing a Property possession claim against someone who initially trained as a Criminal barrister and you’ll know what I mean. Relentless).

But for for a future where you can buy a home, afford to have kids and retire with a modicum of dignity? The chances of this at the legally aided Criminal bar are slim. Sorry.

And the kick in the head is that it’s probably not you. It’s the stacked system.

My simple tip

If you can afford to – and have to, take the Criminal legal aid training and the Bar Standard’s Board’s A4 bit of paper. Try not to think of yourself as anyone’s “hero” but your own – and find a way to build a sustainable practice.

For me, this has been the way that I’ve been able to guide my clients to the other side of their problems and get the best results possible.