By Chloe Jay, Partner at Shentons Solicitors in Winchester
Throughout my career there have been many points where people have taken me to one side and said ‘you’re not going to make any money in this, you know.’ In a similar vein I’ve had someone at a networking lunch describe my job as being ‘like drain-cleaning – a horrible job but someone has to do it.’ You’ve got to laugh when you hear that I’m actually a Partner in a law firm, but getting here was no mean feat and I still have a long way to go…
I am a criminal defence lawyer (the perceived ‘horrible’ part) and I work predominantly in legal aid (the make-no-money part). I have never felt ashamed or embarrassed of what I do because I actually believe that I fulfil a vital role in the justice system.
We have an adversarial system of law in the UK which means the prosecution fight as hard as they can for a conviction and the defence fight as hard as they can for an acquittal, justice hopefully finds the sweet spot in the middle and gets the right outcome.
So you can imagine what would happen if there was no defence to fight on a person’s behalf, there would be many wrongly convicted people. Despite that however, there is a perception that what we do is immoral and this weighs heavily on those who undertake this work. Heads have lowered even further over the years as people struggle to take pride in this type of work. I could give you plenty of emotional examples that might challenge the perception; the case of genuine mistaken identity for example, or one of malicious allegations from someone with an agenda… but that is another blog post for another day!
From a business perspective it is the legal aid element of the work that makes it very difficult to successfully run a criminal defence department. It was estimated a few years back that a majority of legal aid firms undertaking criminal work ran on a 1-2% profit margin due to the rates paid. Legal aid is not popular as it is funded by the taxpayer but any concept of justice must surely mean that we are all entitled to access it.
In order to run a successful firm you need to do a very high number of cases simultaneously to make the figures work. I was concerned this may compromise quality and I therefore wanted to build a different business model at Shentons.
I wanted to grow our reputation as being a team of lawyers who would not leave a stone unturned in defending their clients.
If a case was winnable, we would win it; through proper investigative work, legal argument and detailed preparation. This inevitably led to clients seeking us out for representation, and those who could afford to pay have paid for the service. Legal aid work still remains a huge part of what we do and we view this as a vital part of our system. The department is of course a work in progress and the job is extremely demanding, but I was thrilled to be rewarded with equity partnership at Shentons last summer.
I still get the inevitable question of ‘how do you defend guilty people?’ (again.. another blog post in itself) and I still get the odd sideways glance. I’m proud though of defending people and I think that pride is vital for a successful business – even if you’re cleaning drains!*
*apology to those who clean drains – where would we be without you!?
About Chloe Jay
Chloe Jay is a Partner at Shentons Solicitors in Winchester. She heads an all-female department of criminal lawyers. She was awarded the Law Society Excellent Award for Solicitor of the Year in 2020.
Also, let's not forget the fact that Chloe is a super Disney Fan!
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