An interview with Nadia Salam

Nadia Salam is a solicitor-advocate practising in family law, and is also trained in collaborative law based at GT Stewart Solicitors in London. She is a committee member of Young Legal Aid Lawyers, and is also on the Resolution legal aid committee.  In 2013 she won Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year: Newcomer and has been shortlisted as Family Law Young Solicitor of the Year for the second year in a row in Jordan Publishing’s Family Law Awards.  She has written a number of articles on family law and legal aid, and spoken at various events.

How would you describe your job? 

nadiaI am a family legal aid solicitor. I practise in all areas of family and child law. I see clients at the first meeting to making an application to the Court and representing them at Court. The role is varied and fast paced. There are always a lot of deadlines to work towards. It is important to be approachable and for a client to trust you in family law so that they are able to open up about some of most personal aspects of their lives. There are a range of skills required to be a solicitor and no two days are ever identical.

What case are you most proud of? 

It is difficult to be proud of one particular case. I trained in social welfare and family law and now practise in family law. The area I work in rarely has any obvious wider consequences and are often not front of the newspaper headlines, however they are extremely important matters for my clients. Family law is such an emotive area, with serious consequences for the particular family. I am proud of all my domestic abuse clients (both male and female) who take the courageous steps to seek help. I am also proud of my clients going through care proceedings who have had such difficult past experiences and often involvement themselves with social services when they were children, and coming out the other end even stronger and continuing to put their children first.

Why did you choose to become a legal aid solicitor?

I ended up being placed in a high street law firm for my two week work experience in year 10 at school, at the time I remember feeling really disappointed and thought I would be bored. However the two weeks changed my outlook completely, I saw the real difference a legal aid solicitor could make to someone’s live and there was a lot of diversity in both the work available and the clients you could help.

What path did you take? 

A fairly traditional path into law, however I was never an A-grade student and was told by the careers adviser at school that I didn’t have what it takes to become a lawyer. That was enough to make me prove her wrong. I didn’t do that well in my ‘A’ levels, however got a place to read Law at university. During my undergraduate degree I started volunteering with legal charities and spent each summer in different law firms. I started my LPC (legal practice course), which lasted one year as soon as I finished my three-year law degree, and I was extremely lucky to start my training contract within two weeks of finishing my LPC.

I tried to do as much as possible, and took every opportunity to gain work experience in the legal profession and in charities that worked with similar client groups. Even my weekend job in a shop was helpful and gave me good experience. I entered mooting competitions at university and also use to attend Court every now and again to see what it was actually like.

All of this helped me when I went for that all important training contract interview, I trained with a not-for-profit law firm in social welfare and family law. The training contract lasts two years. On qualification as a solicitor I went to work for a charity, and was part of the in house legal team. I was able to combine my love of law with campaigning and had a varied role. I then decided I wanted to practise solely in family law and left to work at my current law firm where I have been for over two years now working as a family solicitor.

Should aspiring legal aid lawyers have a plan? Are there set ingredients to success?

I do think it is important to have a plan, however with the current climate it is also important to be flexible. Legal aid and the legal profession is constantly changing it is important to not be too rigid with a plan. I don’t think there are any set ingredients to success. I think a lot of it is being in the right place at the right time however I think it is important to be passionate about what you do as a legal aid lawyer and be determined to not give up whether that’s to enter the profession (and remain in it) or to continue fighting your client’s case.

What have been the biggest obstacles for you in building a career?

I would say I have personally been relatively lucky so far in building my career. The pay is not great but I am surrounded by amazing colleagues and clients who make the job worth it. What has been difficult is the ongoing cuts to legal aid. Legal aid has been continually cut for many years and is still being cut.

It is extremely hard to turn people away when to help them is the very reason you entered the profession.

The biggest cuts came into force in April 2013 under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Act. This removed legal aid for a various types of cases, including reducing the matters in family law that would be funded by legal aid. It has been hard to say to people in some very desperate and emotional situations that you are not able to represent them at Court. Whilst free advice can be given, what people need is representation at Court, assistance before and after the hearing. It is extremely hard to turn people away when to help them is the very reason you entered the profession. It is deeply sad that access to justice is becoming just for the rich and many vulnerable people are being left with no legal recourse.

How has the legal aid industry changed since you first qualified, and has this affected your work?

It is has changed dramatically, mainly due to the recession and legal aid cuts. When I first obtained a training contract it was pre-recession days, the market was always tough however it was possible to obtain a training contract without having to work as a paralegal for some time. During my training contact the recession hit, making it more difficult for firms wanting to recruit and take on a commitment for two years, that coupled with the ongoing legal aid cuts that we have been facing for many years has made it far more difficult to obtain a training contact in legal aid.

The type of work I have been able to undertake has changed over the years due to the cuts in legal aid and what is actually funded and is not funded. Also there have been ongoing changes to family law and therefore the way in which work is conducted has changed such as timescales for childcare proceedings, meaning more work has to be done in a shorter timescale.

What is your advice for others wanting to work in legal aid? 

Don’t give up!

It is hard to enter the profession, it will not pay as well as other professions, there will be long hours, however it is extremely rewarding. I am lucky enough to be part of Young Legal Aid Lawyers, we have around 2000 members, there have been days when I have felt like giving up, however knowing I have such dedicated and inspiring colleagues (not just in my own firm but across the profession and students wanting to enter) gives me the momentum to carry on. I would recommend that those wanting to work in legal aid should join Young Legal Aid Lawyers, it’s free to join, there are opportunities to get involved with campaigning for legal aid, meeting other people and keeping updated with key changes.

Under the recent legal reforms ordinary people will struggle to access legal recourse and many in your industry fear for the future of legal aid. Amid such doom and gloom, why do you continue with your work? 

It is important to continue to work with vulnerable people and ensure they can have access to justice. The fees have been dramatically cut and the need to work longer hours to get work done has increased however if we stopped practising in legal aid our client’s would struggle to defend themselves in court from serious allegations of child neglect or abuse, victims of domestic abuse would not be able to protect themselves or their children, and parents would have difficulty in challenging social services decisions to remove their children. If it wasn’t for our clients we wouldn’t continue to work in legal aid, it is for this very reason that campaigning for legal aid as well as continuing to work under the current regime is so important. We owe it to our clients to not give up on their behalf.

Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi

Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi is a freelance journalist and writer-in-residence at Lacuna. Rebecca has been published by a range of publications including openDemocracy, the Guardian, the New Statesman, the Washington Post, the New Internationalist, and the Socialist Lawyer. Rebecca's reporting on immigration and asylum across the European Union was shortlisted for the 2012 George Orwell Prize for Political Writing (blog category) and the 2013 Speaking Together Media Award. In 2012 Rebecca published Gardens, a collaboration with photographer Christina Theisen. The pamphlet illuminates the experiences of environmental activists in London fighting to save the city’s biodiversity, while tackling social inequality. Rebecca's reporting exposing the impact of government policy on ordinary lives was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize 2015. @Rebecca_Omonira

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