The Working Culture of Legal Aid Lawyers: Developing a ‘Shared Orientation Model’

AuthorEmma Cooke
Published date01 October 2022
Date01 October 2022
DOIhttp://doi.org/10.1177/09646639211060809
Subject MatterArticles
The Working Culture of
Legal Aid Lawyers:
Developing a Shared
Orientation Model
Emma Cooke
Division of Law, Society and Social Justice (LSSJ),
University of Kent, UK
Abstract
This paper critically explores the working culture of legal aid lawyers and develops a
novel Shared Orientationmodel to better understand contemporary legal aid work
and its workers. Set within a context of changing professional identities, a shrinking
industry and nancial constraints, the paper draws on ethnographic and interview
data conducted with a high-street rm, multiple courtrooms and a law centre. It exam-
ines the emerging relevance and applicability of this new conceptual lens, refocusing the
gaze on working life in ssured legal workplaces. It is argued that the Shared
Orientationmodel upholds multiple functions. Firstly, it captures the cultural hetero-
geneity of the legal aid profession, across civil-criminal and solicitor-barrister remits
alike. Secondly, the model functions as a form of cohesive coping mechanism in response
to the changing professional identity of the legal aid lawyers. Moreover, the Shared
Orientationoffers unity as a way of functioning in an otherwise fragmented profession
through its preservation of working culture ideals.
Keywords
Legal aid, austerity, professional identities, work, ethnography, occupational culture,
shared orientation
Corresponding author:
Emma Cooke, Division of Law, Society and Social Justice (LSSJ), University of Kent, Cornwallis North East,
Canterbury, CT2 7NF, UK.
Email: E.S.Cooke@kent.ac.uk
Article
Social & Legal Studies
2022, Vol. 31(5) 704724
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
sagepub.com/journals-permissions
DOI: 10.1177/09646639211060809
journals.sagepub.com/home/sls
Introduction
The world of the legal aid lawyer holds a substantial amount of appeal for researchers, as
a unique and complex occupational group which sits on the peripheries of the wider law-
yering profession, the criminal justice system, the voluntary sector, and the welfare state.
Capturing a snapshot of a depleted, and diminishing occupational group provides a pre-
cious resource to aid in understanding and contributing to what it means to be a liberal
professional in the 21
st
century in the legal context. Increasingly, those working with
the eld face precariousness as they attempt to cling onto legal aid contracts resulting
in uncertainty, instability, vulnerability and insecurity(Standing, 2011: 12). In the
context of increasingly ssuredlegal workplaces however, observing labour under pre-
carious working conditions is a matter that does not attract the attention it deserves (see
Weil, 2019).
In light of the new political economy of insecurity(see Beck, 2000), the occupational
identity of the legal aid lawyer has undoubtedly been challenged by cuts to legal aid
funding. Following the radical implementation of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and
Punishment of Offenders Act (2012), and the Transforming Legal Aid Consultation
(2013) in England and Wales, signicant cuts to civil and criminal budgets changed
the legal aid terrain beyond all recognition
1
, severely restricting its scope. The combin-
ation of accumulative cuts alongside the increased demand for legal aid provision from
service users, has led to sustained under-cutting, in turn lowering morale and discour-
aging legal aid work. The rhetoric of justice has fundamentally been damaged (Welsh
and Howard, 2019).
Funding cuts congruent with demands for efciency has led to legal aid lawyers
becoming increasingly alienated (Newman and Welsh, 2019)
2
. Increased levels of regu-
lation have disrupted working practices and have interfered with existing work-based
identities which traditionally, were client-focused. Changes to the legal aid regime
now encourage the enactment of acquisitive as opposed to altruistic modes of work.
Ideal legal aid lawyering principles become compromised for practical business concerns
deriving work satisfaction and restricting the ability of those carrying out the work to
do-goodor to act under the public service ideal (Sommerlad, 2004). As Thornton
(2020: 248) states, this can force the lawyers to work in ways they nd restrictive, dis-
tasteful or even ethically uncomfortable, with the lawyers themselves reporting a
growing sense of crisis. In that context, this paper sets out the ndings of empirical
research, exploring the effects of these changes on the occupational cultureof public
lawyers across criminal and civil justice remits together in one intricate and nuanced
exploration of working practice. Exploring legal-aid lawyering on a wider scale is a
new phenomenon, and one that has allowed this new working model to emerge.
This paper focuses on the development of a new conceptual framework entitled a
Shared Orientation, a model which better obliges an occupation which has altered
from its original remit. Made up of three key parts, the paper draws on research that
has previously documented the wider lawyering role, as well as scholarship on the
way in which work and culture come to interact. The methodology informing the
study is outlined in advance of an overview of the pertinent ndings around the shared
orientation model. The paper concludes recent changes to the legal aid terrain have
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