When I first began my placement as a legal assistant at the Centre in September 2018, it was impossible for me to foresee just how great it would be.
If you factor in the usual ‘first day jitters’ and the bad press the profession often falls foul of with concerns over work/life balance and it being recognised as one of the most stressful professions in the United Kingdom, I foresaw something else entirely.
For those of you that are appreciative of mediocre metaphors, I anticipated a rather daunting ‘uphill battle’ with the ‘hill’ being Mount Everest. Of course, this did nothing to ease my initial and almost inevitable concern of ‘will I be good enough?’ and others of a similar ilk. So, when I was greeted by the warm and welcoming team who always spared the time to teach, guide and train me, I was more than pleasantly surprised.
After my first week at the Centre, my worries had eased as I had begun to settle in and familiarise myself more formally with the areas of law we practised in, including: business and commercial, employment, family, intellectual property, housing and social welfare.
In the first few weeks of my placement, I completed mostly administrative tasks such as calling clients, learning the art of taking a legible attendance note in meetings (trust me, it is an art), organising files/bundles and archiving. Although seemingly mundane tasks, collectively, they exposed me to the operation of the Centre, aided my ability to manage an enquirer or a client, and taught me the necessary procedure(s) I had to follow when I began to take on my own case load.
These weeks also lent themselves to various training sessions, assessments, and acquainting myself with the external organisations and law firms we work with to improve the local community’s access to justice.
At this point in my placement I felt fully immersed in Centre life. With a growing caseload and a contract extension, I continued to feel like a useful and valued member of the team. However, it was this point in my placement that I found it to be most challenging.
With the continued support from my supervisors, I had begun to take on increasingly difficult and complex cases and litigation matters. I felt like I was beginning my placement all over again! With a multitude of new and complicated legal concepts being introduced to me at once and seemingly a million things to do at once, I realised that my mother had been right when she had moaned at me, “you do not know what stress is, Francesca.”
My legal research, drafting and time management skills were tested to the maximum, but with the invaluable help and guidance from my supervisors, I finally began to get back on track and felt myself really starting to develop as a budding lawyer.
Throughout my placement year, I have been afforded opportunities I otherwise would not have had the chance to take or apply myself to fully. For example, volunteering with the Free Representation Unit (FRU) to represent clients at their Social Security Tribunal appeal hearings. After all, appeal hearings are nerve-wracking, especially to those most vulnerable in society, as four out of ten Personal Independence Payment (PIP) claimants do not appeal a wrongful decision as the process would be ‘too stressful’.
This presented itself to me as the perfect opportunity to collectively improve the local community’s access to justice and, as an aspiring barrister, build upon my written and oral advocacy skills.
In order to become a FRU volunteer, I had to attend FRU’s Social Security Training day, pass a written assessment, observe a Social Security Hearing and undergo an office induction. By the end of October 2018, I had successfully managed to become a FRU Social Security Representative and was ready to take on my first case.
It was a rather daunting prospect, but from preparing the appeal to the appeal hearing, I always knew my supervisors were there to help me. Now, after representing over ten clients, achieving a 100% success rate and recovering over £460,000 in benefits for my clients, the nerves have lessened and I have learnt many important lessons. For instance, your written advocacy is of fundamental importance.
It is your first impression and it is quite possible that the judge is leaning towards allowing your appeal or not before you have even entered the hearing. Oh, and you have to have the most exceptional poker face.
My role as a legal assistant also allowed me to work closely with the Nottingham Women’s Centre and Chair of the Student Pro Bono Committee (the Committee). In my role as chair, I worked alongside student committee members to promote pro bono work and establish how we could enhance the Centre’s student volunteer experience.
As a Committee, we entered the 2018/19 LawWorks Law School Challenge. The challenge involves law schools competing to raise the most money and awareness for two pro bono charities: LawWorks and Advocate. After meeting to discuss the best fundraising ideas, the Committee got to work.
After numerous hoodie and bake sales, the Committee raised a total of £1,330.45 for the two charities. Placing fourth overall, in light of our success, a Committee member and I attended the House of Commons to celebrate the Committee’s achievements.
After recovering over £3,000,000 in compensation and benefits for clients, the Centre was also recognised for its commitment to pro bono by receiving a highly-commended second place for the ‘Best Contribution by a Law School’ award.
When I began my law degree in September 2016, I could not have predicted that I would have had the opportunity to complete a year in industry, nor could I have predicted just how amazing it would be or how much I would develop as a person and budding lawyer.
I will always be grateful for the invaluable legal experience I have gained and the legal and transferable skills I have since developed. Most importantly, however, with a bucket load of resilience (maybe closer to a skips worth) and hard work I have slowly learnt to be more confident in my own decisions and abilities in my early legal career. Of course, none of this would have been possible without such a truly wonderful team believing in me.