It's easy to get swept along by the commercial current, but HJA takes a different tack, putting "people before profits” and standing up for the little guy.
'Fighting for what's right!' HJA's website boldly declares on its homepage. But when it comes to the complex interplay of law, business and ethics, what's 'right' becomes somewhat subjective. Try telling HJA trainees that. One was convinced it meant “helping individuals and people in the community that otherwise wouldn't be able to help themselves.” For another, it boiled down to “not having the sole focus of making money.” We too could be certain of one thing: HJA's lawyers aren't the type to be fired up by the prospect of doing J.P. Morgan's tax returns or helping Disney take over the world.
Nor is that sort of work on offer at HJA. The firm operates over six main practice areas: personal injury; medical negligence; social housing; family; civil liberties and criminal defence – all of which are validated with rankings from Chambers UK. HJA hopefuls came looking for “work that would get you excited, that you could have a conversation about” – and found it in abundance. In perhaps the best recent example, the firm's social housing lawyers helped victims of the Grenfell Tower fire get emergency accommodation, while the civil liberties team had further involvement in the public inquiry. “The firm has a standout reputation for human rights and social justice work. You have to have a real passion for legal aid.”
Yet for all its good intentions, HJA has the difficult job of reconciling a commitment to legal aid with its business needs. As one candid junior stated: “You can't help people and pursue noteworthy causes if you are bust.” That's not hyperbole – government cuts to the legal aid budget have indeed caused firms to close. While trainees felt HJA had “weathered the storm well,” it has not been without compromise. “Saying we have become more 'commercial' is not the right term, but we have increased the amount of privately paying work we do,” trainees explained, pointing out that “our private client team has increased in size significantly recently and our family practice has taken on a lot more laterals.” Personal injury and clinical negligence – two mainstays of the firm – also suffered from reforms to rules on claims. That has driven a shift to “alternative funding structures such as no win, no fee arrangements,” which help lighten the burden on the firm's clientele.
Persistence in assistance
Before trainees begin their contract they receive a list of nine seats which they must rank in order of preference. That list can be updated as trainees progress. Our interviewees offered some advice: “Make your intentions clear to the departments you want to join as well as to HR. You are more likely to get the seats you want.'
The personal injury department acts for claimants in a range of cases: low value road traffic accidents, employer/public liability matters, serious injuries, and child-related abuse and brain injuries are all taken on. Newbies may also land themselves a place within the industrial disease sub-group, which specialises in asbestos exposure. Claims have been handled for engineers, police officers, shipyard workers, electricians and mechanics. On these matters, juniors had worked with charities to create support groups and trawled through companies' insurance records to ascertain culpability. In the wider team, some trainees mentioned their involvement on one of the UK's largest product liability claims since thalidomide, representing victims who had developed narcolepsy and cataplexy after receiving the Pandemrix swine flu vaccine in 2009. “I travelled all over the country taking witness statements,” reported one trainee. “It takes a while going through all their medical records – some statements are 60 pages long!” Other trainee tasks included drafting initial claims, going through pre-action protocols and instructing medical experts.
“You get the satisfaction of winning a case.”
The crime seat was popular for its “fast pace. It's very different from civil law because everything is urgent and cases conclude quickly, so you get the satisfaction of winning a case.” While “the smaller crimes are more frequent: assaults, shoplifting, criminal damage” – the department covers all sorts of serious crime. That might mean murder and rape, but the team also has specialisms in fraud, extradition and human rights, and is adept at helping vulnerable clients. Part of a crime lawyer's role involves representing the freshly apprehended at police stations, but trainees must work to obtain a police station accreditation first. Once accredited, trainees can “obtain disclosures and evidence from police officers, and advise clients on what to say during their interviews.” Recalling how else they'd got involved, trainees told us: “I took proofs from clients, prepared legal aid applications, took notes at a hearing and liaised with the Crown Prosecution Service to secure disclosures.” The cases are often high profile. The team secured the acquittal of former Big Breakfast TV personality Paul Sadler, who faced charges of downloading indecent images of children; it also defended 15 anti-deportation protesters who broke into Stansted airport to prevent flights from leaving to West Africa.
Lawyers in the popular civil liberties department work closely with their colleagues in crime, holding many an authority to account, including the Ministry of Defence, police forces, immigration detention centres and the CPS. In addition to the Grenfell-related work mentioned earlier, the team has represented protesters arrested across a number of demonstrations, including an anti-EDL march, an anti-BNP march, a protest at Colnbrook Immigration Detention Centre and a 'Cops Off Campus' demonstration at the University of London. HJA prefers trainees to complete a crime seat before settling into civil liberties, and it's easy to see why. Here's what one trainee's ample workload looked like on a mass-arrest case: “After quantifying the number of cases, I reviewed the custody records and visited clients – sometimes in prisons and secure psychiatric facilities – to take instruction, draft witness statements and make sure they understood what was happening. By the middle of the seat, I was seeing new clients on my own and would give them preliminary advice.”
“It's difficult not to get too emotionally involved.”
HJA's social housing lawyers work on a mix of homelessness, disrepair, and possession claims, as well as judicial reviews. As we've mentioned, the team represented over 40 clients who were affected by the Grenfell disaster, but its caseload is full of situations concerning clients in similarly dire situations. One example saw the team pursue a judicial review over the treatment of a Malawian migrant and his 7-year-old child, both reliant on charitable donations, who were refused accommodation by Surrey County Council. “It's difficult not to get too emotionally involved,” confessed one source, “but I find it very rewarding.” Trainees met regularly with clients on home visits, shadowed partners on court duty, and “drafted a lot of settlement offers, which involve a lot of maths. You have to draft a big document stating why you are making this offer, based on the facts and case law, which then gets sent to the local authorities.”
Loadsa... free time
“The pay is a little low,” sources agreed, “but you're not coming here for the salary, you are coming for the experience. Most of us could have gone to higher-paying commercial firms, but you wouldn't be doing the things we have been able to do.” Trainees may have slimmer wallets than their corporate counterparts, but they also have more time to spend their hard-earned dosh.With the exception of crime, which was flagged as having the longest hours, all trainees reported consistently leaving before 6pm. Juniors do however leave a little later on Thursdays and Fridays, as few can resist the allure of discounted alcohol in the firm's basement bar. Christmas parties, charity quizzes and monthly outings (including a recent trip to try out axe throwing!) all fill up newbie's calenders.
These activities, and the work itself, result in “a high-spirited workplace. There is no cut-throat, rat race culture here. Partners take the time to get to know who you are, and everything is generally less hierarchical than in workplaces where profits come before people.” For some, this healthy working environment, full of like-minded individuals, was critical. “I do feel the pressure because we are influencing peoples' lives. It can make you stressed. There is so much responsibility from the get-go, so having the loveliest, most supportive colleagues is the best.” Remaining beyond the two years means interviewing for places, with vacancies released in drips and drabs. In 2018 six out of ten qualifiers snagged one of those places.
Places are competitive. Candidates come armed with impressive volunteering accolades under their belts before applying.
How to get a Hodge Jones & Allen training contract
Training contract deadline (2021): 26 July 2019 (opens 1 November 2018)
Application and interviews
HJA currently recruits around half of its trainees from its support staff (including a number of paralegals, see below) but both internal and external applicants follow the same process. Candidates apply directly to the firm by submitting an application form by email or post. “It's a simple, open format, which makes it easy to express what you'd like to say about yourself without being restricted by lots of questions,” thought one trainee.
Around 350 applicants are whittled down to a shortlist of 30, who are invited to attend an hour-long interview with two partners. Candidates are given half an hour beforehand to peruse a list of legal scenarios and consider one to discuss. “We're not expecting interviewees to be able to answer the question in-depth, but we are keen to see how they demonstrate their thought process and come to an answer,” a HR source tells us. The rest of the interview involves discussions based on the candidate's CV, “the choices they've made in terms of degree subjects and what area of law they might be interested in,” says HR. One trainee recalled: “It felt informal and the interviewers were very kind. It's a simple process, without any stupid questions.” Demonstrating a thorough understanding of the firm's work and what it stands for is essential to making a good impression. Candidates fare less well if they “can't coherently explain a point or are unprepared to answer the questions put to them,” our source adds.
The candidate pool is halved for the second round of assessments. Applicants complete a half-hour written exercise, and then meet with a current trainee for a tour and chat about life at HJA from a junior perspective. This is followed by a final interview with two members of the firm and separate interviews with the Managing Partner and the Operations Director, who gauges motivation and fit with the firm. Offers are made shortly afterwards.
Paralegal vacancies tend to crop up around every two months, so check HJA's website frequently and submit a CV and cover letter when they appear. Each position typically attracts between 30 and 60 applications. Shortlisted candidates are interviewed by a lawyer within the team they're applying to. Interviewers vary in their style: some ask competency questions or discuss a case study, while others follow a more straightforward CV-questions format.
Achievements and experiences
HJA expects candidates to attain a 2:1 in their degree. Recruiters are also keen to see previous work experience in either a legal or non-legal capacity. “We take on a number of people who have volunteered at the Citizens Advice Bureau; any work experience, whether it's paid or unpaid, can help your application,” a HR source tells us. “We accept people from all backgrounds, whether they're straight out of university or are changing careers.” The source adds: “We've employed people who are doctors, psychotherapists, even a car mechanic. It's particularly helpful when applicants who are in the process of changing careers are able to identify with our clients.”
HJA and social justice
Interview with managing partner Vidisha Joshi and senior partner Patrick Allen
CS: Given that trainees found there was 'a massive corporate and commercial bias' during their LPC, how do you ensure HJA remains an attractive option?
Vidisha Joshi: Working outside corporate law we have to review all avenues of funding for people’s cases. Due to the nature of the work some people see this as vocational and admittedly it's not always an easy sell to trainees who want the ‘Suits’ experience. Firstly, you have to consider the costs of going through university and law school; then when you do enter a career in consumer law, you find that the hours can be long and the pay isn't as significant as that offered by commercial firms. However, when people have social justice at their core and it's their passion, they will realise they can do great work at a firm like ours and make a real change in people's lives. That's what trainees come here to do, and they do it day in and day out. Patrick, who founded the firm is just as passionate about access to justice today as he was 40 years ago and that really permeates throughout the firm. We're here as a firm to remind people how vital our work is but also to highlight the benefits such as the variety of interesting, groundbreaking work that we undertake. It's not easy work but we do try very hard to take care of our trainees. I just recently set-up a 2nd year trainee lunch for those moving into their final seat. It serves as a chance for me to hear from them how they feel 18 months into their training contract and what their plans are moving forward. These are people we have invested in, so I think it's important for me to have an open dialogue with them and for them to know what the firm's strategy is, and what their future with the firm looks like.
Patrick Allen: The fact is that a lot of people are still vocationally driven. It's interesting and meaningful compared to most of what you'd be doing in the City. You can go and work for a firm like Allen & Overy and get good money but you might have to sell your soul doing corporate work with much less of a work/life balance.
CS: How has the firm performed in 2017?
VJ: Despite the challenges presented by government reforms, we have had an excellent year and are on target to hit 17% growth. Our profits are up by over 100% and we have seen a complete turnaround in terms of the firm's cash position. So overall it has been a hugely successfully year from a financial standpoint. On top of that, our staff retention has been one of the best in recent years and we've won four of the 12 awards we were nominated for which includes Patrick's lifetime achievement award. 2017 was important in the firm’s history as it was our 40th anniversary in September. It was such an awesome time for us and a real chance to celebrate our success.
CS: How do you measure success in practice areas that aren't motivated by profit?
VJ: I think it's problematic to suggest that there are any practice areas that aren't motivated by profit. Yes, we are of course motivated by social justice, but in order for any team to be economically viable and to carry on delivering great work we must remain profitable. We are a business and that is something that our lawyers understand. In terms of measuring success we look at a variety of factors within a department. We focus on business development, networking, training and professional development, performance management, growth forecasts and during monthly operational meetings, we also look at the nitty-gritty stuff such as time recordings. We then filter that information down to all our lawyers so everyone knows what’s going on and how to manage expectations.
CS: How do you view the state of the legal aid sector?
VJ: We feel very strongly that the justice system is in crisis. People are being denied access to justice because the scope of legal aid has been massively reduced and the rules of eligibility are ridiculous. People, who previously would have been eligible for legal aid, are now turning to overstretched third sector agencies; others assume that they are not eligible so don't seek out help at all; and we're witnessing a massive rise of litigants in person who are much more difficult for courts to deal with as judges are having to spend an inordinate amount of time at hearings explaining processes and terminology to them. Essentially we are putting our courts and judges under enormous pressure and straining a system that was already creaking begin with.
PA: Well we've gotten used to it, it's being going on for 20 years! Fixed hourly rates have not been increased since 1996 which is now 22 years ago! In that time the RPI (Retail Price Index) has gone up by around 170% - so a £50 pound hourly rate should now be £140. Instead, what they have done is cut them. And what do you think has happened to overheads like rent, telephone rates, insurance, salaries, cleaners, the whole nuts and bolts of running a business? Of course they go up by about 3 to 4% every year creating an impossible circle to square.
CS: Why do you think cuts to legal aid receive less attention than the other pillars of austerity?
PA: It doesn’t have the same buy in. Everyone uses the NHS: young, old, upper class, lower class. When a service is used by everyone it gets protected. Conversely, when it's used by only a small number of people, the poorest people, it doesn't get that same buy in. When I started off practising law, we had a fully functional welfare state as part of the postwar consensus of which legal aid was a key part. In the 70s, at its height, it was covering around 70% of the population compared to today where it probably covers less than 20%.
You can still get legal aid for care cases where the state is trying to take your children away, but the hourly rates and fees have been cut so much that most firms are struggling to do it at all. Most of what you would think of as litigation, unless it's about housing and you're going to lose your home, is also not covered. Professional negligence claims and general disputes are also not covered. Personal injury was taken out a long time ago and clinical negligence, well, there's only so much time left.
The hourly rates that they are prepared to pay for dispersals aren’t what the experts are prepared to work for. Austerity is destroying just about everything around us - it's hard to be optimistic. Local authorities have lost most of their funding. Northamptonshire county council has just gone bankrupt which is the first of many councils who have been raiding their reserves and implementing cuts to stay afloat. There is no suggestion from the government that this is coming to an end because ideologically they want to shrink the state, low taxes and little public provisions.
CS: What has the firm had to do in response to the cuts?
VJ: In context, legal aid used to account for 90% of our fees – it now counts for around 20%. So in response, we have had to re-engineer our outlook and look to private and conditional fee work to balance our books. However, it is done on the basis that we remain committed to legal aid which remains crucial to the firm's ethos. Elsewhere we have expanded our private paying work in areas such as disputes, employment, criminal, private client and estate planning.
CS: Where do you see the firm heading in the next five years?
VJ: We will continue to grow on the solid foundations that we have now. It's been such an incredible year and the plan is to take that forward – we certainly don’t see the firm shrinking. However, being a business we don't always know what is coming round corner, especially in our sector, so we will continue to act to and make changes as market conditions dictate.
CS: Am I right to assume the firm has a political leaning?
VJ: I would say we engage across all parties because we do what’s in the interest of our clients and business to ensure access to justice is upheld.
PA: It's no secret that many of the partners are members of the Labour Party. Henry Hodge, for example, was a Labour councillor married to Margaret Hodge. Inevitably if you are going to be involved in this type of work, your politics is going to be left of centre – though it's not a requirement, just a fact of life. I think generally society is divided into two groups: some that are more communitarian in their outlook and want to look out for people, and those who only look out for themselves.
CS: What qualities do you value in your applicants?
VJ: You need determination to succeed. At the end of the day, the work is tough and not particularly glamorous. Most of our successful applicants have social justice at their core but I would also say that lawyers coming in need to display a high degree of commercial awareness as well as a passion to help clients to succeed and provide the desired outcome.
PA: You have to be just as good a lawyer here as in the City. It's incredibly complicated legal work, and dealing with lay people can be hugely challenging.
Hodge Jones & Allen LLP
180 North Gower Street,
- Partners 46
- Associates 57
- Total trainees 16
- UK offices London NW1
- Graduate recruiter: Diana White, [email protected], 0207 874 8447
- Training partner: Peter Todd
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: 5-9
- Applications pa: 400
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:1
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: 1 November 2018
- Closing date for 2020: 26 July 2019
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: £25,500
- Second-year salary: £27,500
- Holiday entitlement: 22 days
- LPC fees: No
- GDL fees: No
- Maintenance grant pa: No
Our philosophy has always been to enable individuals to have access to justice where otherwise they might be denied it and this ethos remains as strong today as it did back then. We strive to right wrongs, achieve justice for all and get the very best results for our clients. People have always been at the heart of our firm.
‘We have been on the forefront of the legal sector – changing lives, making headlines and advancing the law, since our inception and hope to continue this for many years to come’ – Patrick Allen, senior partner.
Main areas of work
The firm is looking for people who:
• Communicate clearly and effectively
• Have an excellent academic record
• Can demonstrate they are interested and committed to the work the firm does
• Are hard-working and dedicated
• Understand and share the ethos of the firm
• Have a record of achievement in extracurricular activities
A two year training programme across four seats. You will be regarded as a fee earning member of staff during this time, and you will be expected to provide a high quality legal service to all our clients, under the supervision and training of a qualified solicitor. The firm will also support you through your Professional Skills Course.
• Life assurance
• Permanent Health Insurance
• Interest free travel loan in second year
• Piano lessons
• Additional discretionary holiday
• Sports and social committee
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2018
- Children: Public Law Matters (Band 2)
- Clinical Negligence: Mainly Claimant (Band 3)
- Crime (Band 2)
- Crime: Extradition (Band 3)
- Financial Crime: Individuals (Band 4)
- Personal Injury: Mainly Claimant (Band 4)
- Administrative & Public Law: Traditional Claimant (Band 3)
- Civil Liberties & Human Rights (Band 2)
- Police Law: Mainly Claimant (Band 1)
- Social Housing: Tenants (Band 1)