‘I’ve lost the plot’: an everyday story of legal aid lawyers

Publication Date01 Sep 2001
AuthorHilary Sommerlad
ISSN: 0263-323X, pp. 335–360
‘I’ve lost the plot’: an everyday story of legal aid lawyers
This paper examines the impact on a specific group of solicitors in the
United Kingdom of recent changes in the delivery of legal services.
These changes are seen as a form of the New Public Management
(NPM), and the paper explores the proposition that NPM is producing
a public sector characterized by high output but low morale, through
an analysis of qualitative data from a group of ‘political’ legal aid
practitioners. The data is seen to support the high-output/low-morale
thesis, and the paper argues that one effect therefore of legal aid
reform may be to damage the ‘ political’ lawyer’s project of
empowering the client and countering social injustice.
It would be nice if just once in a while someone spoke up for the lawyers (and
there are some) who do a very good job, who are conscientious and work way
beyond the call of duty, who might even be invested with the comically
anachronistic sense of ‘public service’.
The demoralized tenor of this plea by a ‘political’ solicitor is echoed in
research into other parts of the United Kingdom public sector restructured in
response (in part) to the global economic crisis of the 1960s and 1970s.
Such studies support Hoggett’s analysis that whilst the restructuring
(summed up by Hood in the phrase New Public Management,
ßBlackwell Publishers Ltd 2001, 108 Cowley Road, Oxford OX4 1JF, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA
*1 L. Clements, ‘In whose interests?’ Legal Action, October 1994, 6 (a ‘political’
solicitor discussing legal aid franchising.)
2 See, for instance, R. Caplan, ‘Stress, anxiety, and depression in hospital consultants,
GPs and senior health service managers’ (1994) 309 Brit. Medical J, 1261; G.
Troman, ‘Teacher Stress in the Low-Trust Society’ (2000) 21 Brit. J. of Sociology of
Education, 3, 331; B. Dimond, ‘Stress and the midwife’ ( 2001) 7 Brit. J. of
Midwifery, 10, 1.
3 C. Hood, ‘A public management for all Season’ (1991) 69 Public Administration 3–
19; and ‘Contemporary public management: a new global paradigm?’ in Policy
Process: A Reader, ed. M. Hill (1997).
NPM) has increased output as a result of a progressive intensification of
it has at the same time resulted in ‘levels of job satisfaction, stress
and morale’ (that are) ‘. . . at an all-time low’.
NPM has also been associated
with what Marquand describes as ‘20 years of mean-spirited rhetoric’,
casting doubt on the commitment to public service voiced in the leading
quotation. A recent example of this charges legal aid lawyers with being
more ‘concerned with the success of their practices’ than with ‘the interests
of society’.
This paper seeks to respond to this representation by focusing
on ‘political’ private-practice legal aid solicitors.
I use the term political to
encompass those who, although in practice in private law firms serving the
individual client rather than the cause, are distinguishable from their more
conventional colleagues in their view of client work as transformative in
as well as in their basic commitment to using the law in a combative
and often innovative way both in order to serve the underprivileged client in
the most effective way possible, and also to promote social change. As a
result they and the campaigning organizations with which they are loosely
have had an effect on legal aid practice disproportionate to their
numbers. These contentions will be illustrated through the accounts of a
small group of political solicitors of their motivation for entering the law and
4 P. Hoggett ‘New Modes of control in the public service’ (1996) 74 Public
Administration 9, at 10.
5 id.
6 D. Marquand, ‘The breath of renewal’ Guardian, 20 March 2001, 18. John Gray has
written ‘. .. institutions once animated by an ethos of professional commitment have
been casually dismantled or subjected to a callow culture of contract and
managerialism. (‘Hollowing out the core’ Guardian, 8 March 2001, 11.)
7 The Home Secretary, Jack Straw, made this accusation at a crime reduction
conference on 24 February 200l (reported on BBC News Homepage 27 February
2001: ).
8 The choice of term is problematic: S. Scheingold, ‘The contradictions of radical law
practice’ in Lawyers in a Postmodern World, eds. M. Cain and C. Harrington (1994)
at 265, 283, fn. 1. Alternative epithets include critical lawyers (I. Grigg-Spall and P.
Ireland (eds.), The Critical Lawyers’ Handbook (1992)), radical lawyers, lawyers with
a ‘social agenda’ and, in America, ‘cause’ lawyers (see A. Sarat and S. Scheingold
(eds.), Cause Lawyering: Political Commitments and Professional Responsibilities
(1998)). M. McConville, J. Hodgson, L. Bridges, and A. Pavlovic, in Standing
Accused (1994), write in terms of ‘political’ firms (rather than lawyers), thereby
emphasizing – in my view correctly – the importance of the practice site (and see S.
Scheingold and A. Bloom, ‘Transgressive cause lawyering: practice sites and the
politicization of the professional’, (1998) 5 International J. of the Legal Profession
209. Their description of such firms as embracing commitment to the client as a basic
organizing framework and attracting highly motivated staff with a strong sense of
social justice coincides with my findings.)
9 See L. Trubek and M. Kransberger, ‘Critical Lawyers: Social Justice and the
Structures of Private Practice’ in Sarat and Scheingold, id., at p. 204.
10 For instance, the Legal Action Group, founded 1971; whilst an independent pressure
group concerned with access to justice for the disadvantaged rather than representing
political solicitors, it has the same origins and, generally, similar concerns.
ßBlackwell Publishers Ltd 2001

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