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So you want to be.... a childcare lawyer?

Who: Helena Gallagher

Local authority: Staffordshire County Council

Role: Childcare solicitor

To be honest, I really fell into a career within the legal profession. As much as I would like to say that it was a calling and something that I had wanted to do from being ‘knee high to a grasshopper’, it wasn’t.

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My first degree was in Spanish and French. I had wanted to be a teacher but after the work experience realised that I just didn’t have the patience! I actually ended up doing a Graduate Diploma in Law and following the route to becoming a solicitor after a brief discussion with a careers advisor. After this meeting, I returned to my friends in the canteen and outlined what had been discussed, I was quickly met by a barrage of “What? You? A solicitor? No way!” and I thought “Right then, I’ll show you!” and filled out the application forms that day.

I studied at Nottingham Trent University for the GDL and Legal Practice Course and whilst doing so also obtained a Graduate LLB. During this period I worked part-time as a legal assistant/secretary for a local firm, Martin Smalley & Co, and also had the opportunity to do some work experience with Gedling Borough Council and Carrington’s criminal law firm.

I did not have a training contract when I commenced my LPC but knew that the lure of the Magic Circle was not for me. So I was looking at high street and regional firms. I knew that I wanted to do an area of law that affected everyday people and their lives rather than anything large scale financial or commercial.

I was extremely fortunate to be offered a training contract at Martin Smalley & Co and began my two-year stint in wills and probate. It wasn’t until I had a seat in the family department that I really knew what childcare law was!

We had touched briefly on this subject during the LPC but I hadn’t begun to realise the variety and depth that there was in this area. I was mentored in the family department by two extremely experienced childcare solicitors and was able to assist on some childcare matters. That was where I caught the bug.

Knowing that my training contract was coming to an end and that this was the area I wanted to specialise in – but not being all together comfortable with the idea of representing parents, coupled with the changes that were afoot with the Legal Services Commission tender process and the uncertainty that brought for smaller firms – I applied to Staffordshire County Council for a role as a childcare solicitor. I qualified on Friday, 1 October 2010 and began my employment with the council on Monday, 4 October 2010. I have been there ever since.

I was extremely nervous when I started and it was (and still is!) a huge learning curve. But I soon realised that I was within a brilliant team of dedicated solicitors and support staff who all go above and beyond and work together and support each other no matter what situation is faced.

No day is ever the same and things move within childcare at a fast pace. My main role is to provide advice, run cases and do advocacy on behalf of social services. I take my instructions from the social workers who are on the ground with families.

My caseload is varied but inevitably the majority of cases are those where social services feel that the children are suffering or are likely to suffer harm if they remained with their parents and that the reason for this harm is that the parents are not affording them the care that it would be reasonable to expect that they would. We therefore make an application for the children’s removal. The reasons behind this can be numerous; I have cases that involve neglect and poor home conditions, sexual abuse, domestic violence, murder, bestiality, non-accidental injuries and emotional abuse.

I enjoy the role as it is nice to feel that I am making a difference to the lives of children. I also like the variety that you encounter as the facts of every case are different and relate to real people and their lives.

The pace of the work is fast; our cases have to conclude within 26 weeks, which does not leave much time for all the necessary assessments of alternative carers, and for any expert opinion that is required. You need to be organised, able to assimilate huge amounts of information and to translate them into simple language, able to think on your feet and be able to withstand the criticism that comes with such an emotive area of law.

I can spend my days advising whether we have the grounds to issue an application, requesting evidence, issuing proceedings, drafting papers for court, reading psychological or psychiatric reports, looking at medical records and reports, attending meetings with parents and/or their legal representatives, conducting hearings in court and being on duty providing advice in relation to emergency situations.

There are always pressures pulling you in all directions, our clients are usually managing a busy caseload themselves and situations inevitably change, even by the minute. When you think something is straightforward it is often not. You need to be flexible and calm when things do go wrong! The court is also keen to make sure that matters conclude swiftly and that the welfare of the child is not affected by any delay.

I think that to be a childcare solicitor you need to be a bit of a control freak! The ability to work under pressure is also key, along with an eye for detail and the ability to think on your feet and prioritise competing interests. It can be extremely demanding, however the sense of achievement and challenges make it extremely rewarding and worthwhile. You need to be able to detach your personal feelings about things and deal with issues in an objective manner.

From my experience, It can be difficult to know what areas of law there are and I would advocate getting as much work experience in different areas as possible as early as you can. This enables you to see what is on offer and get a taste for it.

I never realised that local authority work could be like this. I did have some preconceived ideas of being sat a desk all day ploughing through contracts (this may appeal to some but actually fills me with dread!). My days are in reality very different from that; a day in the office is often a rare treat that enables me to catch up on paperwork rather than the norm.

If I could go back and choose an area of law again, I would definitely still choose childcare. It is exciting, emotive and challenging and I love it. I will admit that I do sometimes after a particularly gruelling day in court I think, “Why do I do this?” but in reality I wouldn’t change a thing.

Helena Gallagher is a childcare solicitor at Staffordshire County Council

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