Meet some of our people, including Civil Legal Assistance solicitors and an Assistant Manager who has worked at SLAB for over 20 years.
Read about some of the varied roles, locations and benefits on offer to solicitors working for the Civil Legal Assistance Office.
Angela Graham, Inverness CLAO's Head of Office, talks about the experiences and challenges her role offers
After working in the recoveries department of a large commercial firm dealing with professional negligence and mortgage repossessions, I joined the CLAO Highland and Islands solicitor team in Inverness in 2013, becoming Head of that office in 2019.
It was a huge move for me and my family at the time, but the focus of the Civil Legal Assistance Office really appealed to me. I have felt the benefits professionally and appreciate having a job that allows me to achieve my career goals. Having a good work life balance and being able to manage my family time is important to me as well and within 20 minutes of finishing work, I am able to enjoy the best of what the Highlands has to offer, whether that is stunning beaches or mountains that go on for days.
I enjoy being able to make a difference, sometimes a significant one, to my clients and their families.
The Inverness office deals with a variety of case work, including housing cases, child protection and mental health work. Being able to play a part in things getting better, for clients facing difficult times in their lives, is a rewarding job. It is challenging and really interesting work - no two cases are ever going to be the same. Our office has been involved in some ground - breaking case work, such as an order in a recent permanence case for contact between a child and birth mother to take place via a private group in Facebook; the first of its kind in Scotland.
Another rewarding part of the job is working closely with advice and support agencies. We are able to support them in a variety of ways, including by providing second tier advice to help them in relation to cases that they are dealing with, training and specialist legal representation in cases where that will have the most impact. Having such good links with these organisations also helps us to find the right support, for clients who would benefit from services other than our own.
When I joined CLAO, I did so as an experienced solicitor. I was at the stage of my career when I was looking to build upon that experience and challenge myself in new areas. As well as dealing with complex casework, I was able to develop my managerial skills through helping the then Head of Inverness office to mentor and support less experienced staff and advising on processes and policies which were all part of developing CLAO and building upon its success.
When the previous Head of Office retired in 2019, having had the benefit of being able to take on those additional tasks, I felt ready to take on that role, when it became available. I enjoy having the additional responsibilities, alongside managing my own caseload, which allow me to have a direct input in how the service is run and help develop the vision for its future.
Simon Leigh has been working as a solicitor in the Inverness office of the Civil Legal Assistance Office since March 2019. He tells us a bit about his background, why he came to work for CLAO and what he enjoys most about his job.
It may sound lofty to say you applied for a job because of the appeal of enabling people to exercise their legal rights by overcoming disadvantages and barriers.
But in Simon Leigh’s case that was exactly what attracted him to a solicitor post with the Civil Legal Assistance Office (CLAO) in Inverness.
Now nearly 18 months into the role he’s had plenty of time to find out if the ethos of the network of solicitors and support staff employed by the Scottish Legal Aid Board (SLAB) rings true.
“Without a doubt. The rewarding aspect of being a casework solicitor with CLAO is making a difference to people’s lives,” said Simon.
“The kinds of cases we take on mean that more often than not you are assisting a person through a bad time in their life.
“They can be facing eviction or their children may have been removed from their care.
“By giving them independent advice about their options and using the legal remedies available we allow people to achieve the best outcome that they can in their particular situation.”
It all began with volunteering experience as a law student
Simon entered law as a mature student at the University of Stirling aged 28. During his law degree he volunteered for a small charity. It assisted disabled people with a range of issues, predominately benefit claims, appeals and upper tribunal appeals.
“I found this very rewarding,” he said.
Simon was a representative for the charity in an appeal which resulted in changes being made to the PIP decision maker’s handbook, and as a result was mentioned by a minister in the House of Lords.
Simon’s route to CLAO Inverness started with him working about as far outside the Central Belt as is possible. He spent two years as a trainee solicitor in Shetland, working with a small rural firm.
His caseload related to family law matters but he also gained experience in children’s hearings, defending housing cases, debt recovery/sequestration, residential conveyancing, and guardianships/Powers of Attorney.
A year later he gained his restricted practising certificate and from then on was regularly appearing in court: “The majority of my clients were legally aided and often supported by, or referred to us, by Women’s Aid.
“I gained more experience in dealing with people who were living through different types of difficult life situations and enjoyed being able to help them with their legal problems.”
Once qualified Simon spent a short time working in commercial property for a large firm. He soon found this was not for him: “My previous experience was linked to litigation and I found that I missed being able to assist people with their difficult problems in this way.”
On joining CLAO Simon spent his first month working from CLAO Edinburgh’s office within the Scottish Legal Aid Board’s headquarters. This allowed him to work alongside experienced housing specialist solicitors and gain more training and experience in housing law, including defending eviction proceedings.
He also met various SLAB staff and found out about what they do and how their role interacts with his.
“The experience I got here gave me a good foundation for the casework I was allocated when I started in the Inverness office in April 2019,” he said.
“My new colleagues were very supportive and were always open to any questions I had.
“Their vast experience was a resource which was always on hand if I was unsure about how to proceed or simply had a question about something.”
Simon also had the opportunity of shadowing various types of cases that he hadn’t done before, including a mental health tribunal.
Simon’s move to Inverness coincided with the tail end of a heat wave. Quite a change after two years in Shetland where it was rarely warmer than 16C.
“Inverness felt like a sauna,” he said “There is pretty much everything you could want here - apart from IKEA. The pace of life is more relaxed than living in a big city and some of the finest countryside in Scotland is on your doorstep.
“The Highlands in general are a vibrant place to live, with Inverness one of the fastest expanding cities in the UK, if not Europe.
“Although Inverness might appear to be ‘a long way north’, the good transport connections mean it feels just up from the Central Belt.”
If Inverness’ offerings are varied that chimes with Simon’s caseload. He’s had cases involving everything from housing and homelessness to public family law (eg children’s hearings & permanence), debt and some mental health related work.
“I have come across some very interesting cases, particularly in terms of issues surrounding disability discrimination and equalities,” he said.
“This is an area of law I had touched on during my traineeship, but in a different context, an Employment tribunal, not defending antisocial behaviour orders and social landlord eviction actions.
“I have found this area particularly interesting as it expands on and allows me to develop my expertise in the sort of arguments I initially became interested in when I was working a charity volunteer.”
Now that he’s nearly 18 months into his role in Inverness Simon said the job has more than matched his expectations: “The wide variety of casework means that no day is the same.
“You never know what’s just around the corner and what is supposed to be a quiet day can become interestingly busy in the blink of an eye.
“On top of this is the rewarding nature of the work I am undertaking by helping vulnerable people, who often would not have received help if CLAO were not there.
“There is certainly never a dull moment in the office. I’ve also been able to appear in the majority of the courts across the Highlands. Being able to visit some beautiful places for work is just an added bonus.”
Edinburgh CLAO solicitor Eilidh Meikle on how she can help her clients
I was delighted to secure a position as solicitor with CLAO in the summer of 2014.
I was coming to the end of an excellent traineeship with a multi-specialist firm in Edinburgh and was looking for a job that would allow me to assist vulnerable people when they needed it most.
I didn’t have much background in housing law but the Edinburgh team provided me with so much training and support that I soon got up to speed.
The work of a social welfare lawyer is varied.
We have eviction and housing disrepair cases in both the sheriff court and tribunal, mortgage repossession cases in the sheriff court and homeless judicial review cases in the court of session.
I enjoy speaking to the clients and working out pragmatic solutions – it is important to keep an open mind as there can be surprises along the way!
Our clients are often facing very difficult personal circumstances, and knowing that someone is relying on you to help them with complicated problems – including the prospect of homelessness – can mean working under pressure. But it also makes the job extremely rewarding.
Over the last few years the team has helped more people than I can count. I'm proud to say I've been part of that.
Solicitor Hazel Bon on her route into a rewarding career helping often vulnerable clients
I wanted to be a lawyer from a young age, after being inspired by the glamour of LA Law.
What attracted me to CLAO was the opportunity to achieve results for clients who have been treated poorly by various systems throughout their lives.
The job is not an easy one (nor a glamorous one) but it is satisfying and I have loved doing it for the past eight years.
Even in a difficult week it is all made worthwhile when, for example, a homeless client is given accommodation as a result of work we have done, or a family facing eviction is able to remain in their home.
Having enjoyed student life in Dundee, I missed my beautiful and exciting home city and so returned to study for my Diploma at the University of Edinburgh.
I have always believed in equality and justice for all. So that was what I wanted to use my legal training and Scotland’s enviable legal assistance schemes for. I knew that I did not want to work at a large firm or in the corporate sector.
That led me to a traineeship and two post-qualifying years with Legal Services Agency’s Mental Health Legal Representation Project for Edinburgh and the Lothians, providing representation at Mental Health Tribunals and assisting people to make, or defend, applications under the Adults with Incapacity legislation.
After deciding I would like to broaden my experience, I spent the next six years practising personal injury and medical negligence law, but found I missed the challenge and sense of purpose of helping vulnerable people to exercise their legal rights.
When I saw the job advertised at CLAO I knew this was for me – as did several friends who all sent me the ad!
When I started at CLAO in 2012 I had no experience in housing or homelessness law but my colleagues helped me understand the legislation.
I soon had my own case load and was dealing with calls from members of the public and from advisors at other agencies seeking legal advice about their own cases.
The team at CLAO is friendly and approachable. Someone is always on hand to give advice or just have a chat about any difficult cases.
The odd rowdy dinner or evening in the pub (or on Zoom) also happens!
We also enjoy collaborative working with various other advice and support agencies to achieve the best possible results for our individual clients, and to try to make housing and homelessness services fairer and more accessible for all.
I would encourage anyone who is interested in social justice and using their law degree to make the world a bit better to apply for a job at CLAO.
“I’ve been with the Legal Aid Board for over 20 years and have really enjoyed my time here. My first job was as an admin assistant in Treasury, and from there I progressed my way up through the organisation. I became a collector then a deputy team leader, then a team leader and then to my current role as assistant manager.
I’d say the reason I’ve been with the organisation so long is down to the fact that I find the work really interesting. It’s very varied and is generally a great place to work. I like that every day is different and you often have to juggle lots of different tasks at once. My job certainly keeps me on my toes.”
“I first joined the Legal Aid Board because I wanted to be part of an established organisation that would make the most of my experience. I’ve been here two years now and I’m pleased to say the role has exceeded my expectations.
I like the fact that it’s very varied and every day brings something different. I also enjoy working with my team and I’d say our work environment is a really positive one.”
“I started with the Legal Aid Board six years ago. I was looking for a job which would be rewarding and interesting, but would also allow some flexibility, so I could fit my job around my family. And that’s what SLAB offered.
I’ve found the work to be varied and interesting. We see applications in a wide variety of cases and the work is often topical. Many issues that we consider are reported in the media and it’s hugely interesting being involved in the decision making.”
“In 1990 I moved to Edinburgh and was looking to secure employment. I had previously worked in both the private and public sector and enjoyed office work, so when I came across an opportunity at the Legal Aid Board, I decided to go for it.
Altogether I’ve been here for just over sixteen years. After thirteen and a half years I decided I wanted to try something different. I worked elsewhere for three years then re-applied with SLAB.
I was pleased to come back. The department I work in now was new when I joined and we inherited various projects, so I had to get up to speed with things very quickly. And I enjoyed that. I’d say the other things I like about SLAB are my team and colleagues throughout the organisation. Plus the fact, there’s never a dull moment.”
“Like many people here, I’ve been with the Legal Aid Board for over a decade, seventeen years in fact. I first applied for a job at SLAB because I’d heard it was a great place to work, and I’ve not been disappointed.
I like that I’m kept busy and the work is challenging. I also enjoy the fact that I’m continually learning. I get to learn about everything from managing people to new technology. I suppose my biggest challenge is ensuring the continuous operation of SLAB’s systems, not to mention keeping our customers happy at all times.”
“Prior to joining the Legal Aid Board 12 years ago, I worked in an insurance company. I wanted a change of direction and SLAB offered that.
I think everyone here enjoys the fact that the work is very varied, I know I certainly do. No two days are the same, and that’s great. I suppose the biggest challenge in my role is the need to meet deadlines. It’s also down to me to make sure team morale is high, so I do my best to make sure everyone is happy and positive in their roles.”