Laura Williams is a Trainee Solicitor at South West London Law Centres (SWLLC), a community based Law Centre and registered charity. SWLLC help people to understand and enforce their legal rights and in doing so, they address the root causes of social injustice – poverty, family breakdown, unemployment and exploitation. Every year, they help thousands of people from all walks of life who would otherwise be unable to afford the services of a lawyer.
Laura has just finished the first year of her training contract with SWLLC. Her training seats have covered Housing, Community Care, Welfare Benefits, and she is due to begin her final seat in Immigration.
“In summary; my experience so far as a trainee has proved to be a steep learning curve; I was treated as a fee earner from the start of my training contract which involved me taking responsibility for cases, dealing with my own clients, attending court and consistently learning and developing, whilst under supervision.
My supervisors have been extremely helpful and I have learnt an incredible amount from them.”
What have been the best moments so far?
I assisted a client with a community care case where the client and her 9-month old son, who is a British Citizen, were being supported by social services under section 17 of the Children Act 1989. They were financially reliant on social services as the mother had no immigration status, but had an application pending with the Home Office. Social services were only providing the mother with £20 per week worth of Asda Vouchers. The client was struggling to provide for her child and she often could not afford food for herself. After threatening judicial review proceedings, I managed to persuade social services to increase the financial support to £73.78 cash per week, which was the minimum amount set by case law.
In another case I had a possession claim and counterclaim for disrepair case where the client had numerous complex mental health issues. The client’s flat was in a state of disrepair; including water ingress to the bathroom ceiling which caused part of the ceiling to collapse. I was able to argue at court that the claim be struck out, and the client achieved £4000 damages for the counterclaim which was used in part to offset against the rent arrears, which cleared the arrears and left the client with some additional funds for personal use.
What has been most challenging so far?
Attending the Housing Court Duty Scheme (HCDS) as Duty Solicitor at Croydon and Wandsworth County Courts was by far the most challenging part of my training contract. The HCDS provides last-minute help to people facing eviction or repossession. Initially, I found advocacy to be extremely daunting and I did not enjoy it one bit. I think it’s fair to say advocacy is not my favourite part of law and I am not a natural public speaker, due to being a bit on the shy side. However, after a number of sessions of shadowing I was thrown in at the deep end, which I now realise was the best way to learn. I feel that I have rapidly improved my advocacy and negotiation skills through having an extremely short amount (5 -10 minutes) of time before each hearing to see a client; identify the key and important bits of information, negotiate with the opponent and formulate the arguments for the client’s defence. I have definitely learnt how to think on my feet! I have now got to the stage where I have seen up to ten clients on a duty day.
Is it difficult managing a caseload of three different areas of law?
Working across three training seats has its challenges; initially it was quite overwhelming as prior to starting my training contract I had no experience in Housing, Community Care or Welfare Benefits, my main experience was in Immigration. I was therefore having to learn about each of the areas of law from scratch as I went along and this involved me doing a certain amount of reading in my free time, however I do enjoy carrying out research and expanding my knowledge. It is also useful as some clients have community care issues as well as housing issues which means I am able to integrate the different areas of law, subject to the legal issues involved, in any given case.
Have there been any surprises during your training contract?
Six months into my training contract I was asked to run a training session on Housing Law for lawyers from Brown Rudnick LLP who volunteer at SWLLC’s evening pro-bono clinic’s. Brown Rudnick is a leading international law firm. This was quite a nerve-wracking experience as I had only been working in housing for a relatively short period of time. Being the book worm that I am, I fully researched the areas of law they wanted covering and prepared in depth training notes and a PowerPoint presentation. Taking questions from one of the partners of the firm was also a bit terrifying. Overall the training was well received and this experience significantly increased my confidence.
What is the social life like at the law centre for a trainee?
I attended the Solicitor’s Journal Awards night when our housing team was shortlisted for Housing Team of the Year 2016. This was a fancy occasion with a three course meal, albeit it was a little disheartening when we did not win our category, but it was a great achievement for us to have been shortlisted. I also attended the Young Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year awards as our immigration Solicitor was nominated for Children’s Rights Lawyer of the Year, which was also a fantastic achievement. I am grateful that I was given the opportunity to attend these events representing the law centre.
SWLLC is seeking a Social Welfare Law Trainee as part of the Justice First Fellowship scheme run by The Legal Education Foundation. Further details are available here: http://45.gs/swllc and applications are open until Tuesday 20th September.