Sophie Russell: A journey from legal aid to private practice – my experience as a young criminal lawyer

Sophie Russell

Against a backdrop of challenges for criminal law practitioners, Sophie Russell of MTM Defence Lawyers considers the skills set that young lawyers need to develop as firms adapt to the changing nature of criminal law.

Many of you may recall the careers fair at university, where a number of larger legal firms would set up stall and answer questions from prospective applicants about what life as a practising solicitor is like. I always felt a little lost, as there were rarely firms specialising in criminal defence there to represent my area of interest.

The cutbacks to legal aid, combined with anti-social working hours and the falling number of prosecutions, have left very little time for criminal firms to devote to recruitment and marketing. In fact, there were a number of times during my tenure at university as a prospective young lawyer when I was told not to go into criminal law for the usual reasons: “There’s no money in criminal law”; “Legal aid is on its last legs” and such like. I wondered whether or not I would find my place in such a difficult landscape.

Nevertheless, I stayed the course and I am glad that I did. That does not mean that the warnings come without substance. For example, the fall in the number of prosecutions being brought, along with the introduction of the new Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 2016, had already put pressure on practitioners practising solely in criminal law. COVID-19 has seen a further dramatic reduction in court business. Firms will inevitably have to adapt. Advancements in social media and technology can help to drive business, but there really is no substitute for your reputation. Some firms are finding that specialising in certain areas, such as road traffic cases, white collar law or private practice enable them to offer a different type of service to clients.

I cut my teeth at a number of leading legal aid firms in the Scottish Borders. Just over a year ago I moved away from legal aid to work with MTM Defence Lawyers, dealing with privately-funded cases.

So, what are the differences between legal aid and private practices?

I have spent a lot more time away from court and in the office. The firm places a great deal of emphasis upon the preparation of cases before they get to court. Spending less time in court has allowed me to spend more time with clients, learning about the fine details of the defence, and investigating their case. Liaising with specialist witnesses (like forensic scientists, medical experts and even a forensic linguist) has often proven to be instrumental in achieving a successful outcome for the client. Routine precognition of police witnesses (a practice often no longer possible in legal aid cases) has often led to the discovery of overlooked or unappreciated evidence which can be influential in negotiations with the prosecutor or at the trial. I was also surprised to discover how much time is invested in legal research. Marshalling relevant authorities on discrete points of law (sometimes from other jurisdictions) can be critical to the proof of a charge.

The work is more varied and diverse than I thought it would be. MTM deals not just with traditional criminal cases but also with regulatory and white-collar crime. A typical day can include representing a professional client in court facing an allegation of domestic assault, consulting with counsel and an expert witness in a case involving electronic evidence and visiting a forensic laboratory to precognosce a forensic scientist. On another day, I might catch an early flight to get to our London office, meet with client to discuss a fraud allegation and help prepare a CPD PowerPoint for a seminar that one of the firm’s directors is presenting.

The firm has a different clientele than I was used to dealing with. Most are senior professionals like company directors, those working in financial services or in the professions (including some lawyers). Some clients have a high-profile and are known to the public. The firm also represents businesses and organisations requiring criminal law advice. Unusually for a criminal law firm, many of our clients are based outside Scotland: in England; in Europe; and in the United States.

I had to quickly learn new professional skills to enhance my credibility as a young lawyer, with a new (perhaps more demanding) client-base. Attention to detail, tact, patience, discretion and teamwork are particular skills I have had to develop and enhance over the last year. Transitioning to the highly competitive arena of private practice has also made me keenly aware of the need to keep ahead of the curve.

Looking back over the last year, the experience of moving from legal aid to private work has been equally surprising and rewarding. I have broadened my experience of criminal law, expanded my expertise into regulatory and white-collar cases and learned vital new professional skills. My year in private practice has allowed me to oversee cases from their infancy right through to the appeal stage on novel points of law that I helped to craft.

So, my advice to anyone thinking of taking a similar plunge into private practice would be this: develop and use your existing network to expand on your knowledge of specialist areas; keep up to date with the latest developments in your field; enhance your reputation by attending networking events and by using social media; and have confidence that the skills you develop as a busy legal aid practitioner are not only transferable, but will be essential to enable you keep up with the demands of private practice.

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