With the ever widening earnings gap between city law firms and the funding of public sector law, what are your options as a lawyer?

Due to the nature of the clients and legal issues brought forward, a career in public sector law is generally regarded as the most rewarding option for a qualified lawyer. For those seeking a job in which they can make a difference, the choice between private and public practice should, in theory, be obvious.

By providing equal access to justice for a vast number of individuals and organisations, lawyers in the public sector naturally gain a sense of satisfaction from working to encourage societal change. It’s no wonder that they are, on average, a much happier bunch than lawyers within private firms.

That said, it’s a well-accepted fact that nobody starts a career in public sector law to get rich.  As the gap between City law firms and public sector practices grows wider by the day, many newly qualified lawyers are coerced to sidestep public practice in favourof a healthy income that they can count on to climb higher.

Since the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) came into force in April 2013, the number of cases granted government funded legal aid in the UK has drastically diminished. Where prior years saw the number of social welfare cases granted rise to six figures, that number had already shrunk to a mere 54,635 by 2015. Today, cases surrounding welfare benefits and employment are only accepted for government funding in exceptional circumstances. Regrettably, the impact of public sector cuts has threatened access to justice for the vast swathes of people who cannot afford to seek legal advice from a private practice.

As well as those in urgent need of legal support, cuts in funding of public sector law has forced many firms across the country to restructure, merge with competitors or close completely. According to the latest figures, only 44 law centres still remain in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. In turn, law graduates seeking traineeships within public sector practices are increasingly unable to secure the position they need to qualify.

What’s worse, those who do will be welcomed into the public law profession with a salary that pales in comparison to that of their private sector counterparts. As it stands, new entrants to City law firms start their careers with salaries nearly three times that of top level bankers and accountants in the Square Mile. Naturally, public practices who could only dream of offering such salaries are continually facing a crushing defeat in the war for talent as City firms snatch up the best and brightest through attractive remuneration packages.

Speaking on the persistent pay gap between public and private sector law, Chris Henley, QC  and vice-chairman of Criminal Bar Association, said:

“No newly qualified solicitor or barrister goes into areas of law funded by legal aid to get rich or anything remotely close. But criminal lawyers, and those doing family and immigration work do work essential to the wellbeing and civilised functioning of our democratic society. These astonishing starting salaries show how publicly funded work has become completely decoupled from the commercial sector. Not many criminal QCs earn this much.”

While salary is only one factor in the choice of a newly qualified lawyer, it certainly seems to be swaying professionals away from providing advice as a public service and giving back to the community. Yet, work of this nature comes with a range of benefits that are not often publicised. As well as furthering the public good, public sector legal professionals typically boast a better work-life balance than those in City firms whose downtime is determined by high billable hour quotas.

Further to this, the recognition and honour associated with public sector work can allow candidates in the legal jobs market to gain a competitive edge: rather than working to increase their earnings, experience in the public sector shows commitment to an important cause.

Naturally, the idea of working within a public sector practice may not conjure images of flashy cars and fancy offices. However, those who do opt for a career in the public side of the legal sector tend to benefit from experience across a number of practice areas. Unlike lawyers within private firms, their service is not restricted to one specialism: instead, they are exposed to a wide variety of cases ranging from landlord/tenant disputes and immigration issues to child custody and civil rights matters.

New graduates seeking to fill their CVs with rich and diverse experience would do well to kickstart their careers in the public sector – however, as the cost of living increases and the earnings gap continues to grow, retaining talent to help those most in need will continue to be the biggest challenge that public practices face.

Last autumn, former lord chief justice Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd stated his belief that it was “essential” that the gap did not grow even wider. “The responsibility for this rests firmly with the government”, Lord Thomas said, adding that “inaction is not an option”.