No contract? No problem

Can't secure a training contract? Then work in a Citizens' Advice Bureau is worth considering. Not only will you clock up useful and relevant experience, but it can count towards qualification.

Under a scheme recently agreed, the Law Society will now consider reducing the two-year training contract period for students with certain types of work experience, including some work in a CAB. And for people who have completed the academic stage but not the Legal Practice Course, two years' alternative experience in a CAB could reduce their training contract by as much as a year.

John Bacon, now assistant manager at Stoke CAB, worked at the York bureau for three years, initially as a volunteer, before doing a CPE conversion course. Unable to get a training contract when he finished the course, he decided to return to CAB work and now hopes to get his CAB experience credited towards a training contract.

“Law graduates working in CABx often get the chance to do tribunal work and court representation as well as interviewing and general advice,” he says. “The experience you gain is invaluable, and directly relevant to the core skills of negotiation, advocacy, interviewing and drafting which are laid down by the Law Society.

“CAB experience can really help in getting a training contract, as well as reducing the time it takes to qualify, and you have a chance to become known to local solicitors through your CAB work.”

CABx have undergone a transformation and are no longer just the information points and guidance agencies they were once seen as. Today they are as likely to be engaged in complex welfare rights, debt, employment, housing and immigration casework.

And CAB expertise in these social welfare law areas – traditionally rather neglected by solicitors – has now been officially recognised. A number of CABx are involved with other independent advice agencies in a pilot legal aid franchise scheme and the Lord Chancellor has indicated he wants the CAB service and other independent advice agencies to play a bigger role in the delivery of legal services in the future.

Last year, the 721 CABx in England, Wales and Northern Ireland handled almost 6.5 million problems and issues such as social security, debt, employment, housing, legal and relationship problems accounted for over 80 per cent of the workload.

The work of a CAB adviser involves providing detailed information and advice to the public, including benefit calculations, helping clients draft letters and understand their rights and responsibilities, and providing guidance on legal procedures and the administration of government.

But in addition, advocacy and negotiation with other organisations on behalf of clients also form a large part of the work, often involving lengthy wrangles over problems with creditors, landlords or the benefits agency.

The work also involves preparing clients' cases for representation at the county court and tribunals – primarily social security appeals tribunals, disability appeals tribunals, housing benefit review boards, industrial tribunals and immigration appeal tribunals. This demands meticulous attention to detail, familiarisation with case law and advocacy skills.

Attitudes are as important as aptitude in CAB work and a non-judgemental approach is essential. Basic training takes between 100 and 150 hours, spread over a period of weeks or months. After this, you can take on the casework that is key to the work experience recognised by the Law Society.

However, around 90 per cent of the CAB workforce is made up of volunteers, so most of the opportunities are unpaid. But voluntary work does not affect entitlement to benefits, and some paid work opportunities also exist. And when the experience can prove so valuable, CAB work should be on the 'other options' list at least.

For further information on the scheme, contact the Information Services Unit, Legal Education Division, the Law Society 0171 242 1222.