Working Theory

by Michael Reed


I do employment law for the Free Representation Unit.


michael at


Standing in the river

03 February 2015

Working in a legal charity is like standing in a fast flowing, rapid-filled river.

Bear with me.

Quite a few of us are here. But the river’s wide, and there are people coming down it, looking for the safety of the sandbank somewhere behind us. We call these people clients.

Some of them are on their feet, struggling to keep their balance against the water. But too many have fallen and are getting sucked along by the current, heads dipping below the water.

Our job is to get as many of them to safety as we can. There are always too many and we can’t get to everyone.

My little bit of the river – employment law – has got faster recently. It’s harder to get to people and harder to pull them to their feet. Employment fees was a bit like opening some flood gates somewhere. Cuts to the advice sector are like new rapids, cutting sharp points in the water.

But I can look over and see other places where the water is just an expanse of white foam.

Take the criminal lawyers. The water there is almost over their heads, running ever faster. And they’re screaming at the river, in righteous anger, refusing to go down. As they struggle, people are already being driven past them, faster than they can catch. Worse, fewer new people are stepping into the water there. They can see how fast it’s running.

Because that’s the thing. The river will always be there. Injustice, poverty, crime, family breakdown or any of the other problems that put people in the water are simply not things the human race will solve any time soon. There were people here long before us, and there will be people here long after us. Our job is the clients in front of us, while we’re here.

I think it’s a job worth doing. I’m proud of the volunteers getting into the water for the first time. Everyone in the river, whether they’re a lawyer or a voluntary sector caseworker or a volunteer is my comrade-in-arms. That’s corny as hell, but like a lot of corny stuff, it’s also kind of true.

The permanence of the river is also a comfort. It might be running high now. But it has run as high and higher before. For centuries, people have stepped into the water anyhow. They’ll continue to do so.

Times seem dark at the moment. That’s because they are. So it goes.

There have been troubled times before. History is not, unfortunately, a steady curve of upward progress. We stand in the river, we hold on, we help who we can. We try to make things a bit better. It’s that simple (and that hard).

But it does work. We know it’s worked before because we got here – to a horribly flawed system that’s nonetheless incontenstably better than almost anything else in recorded history. If we had to, we could do it again. From scratch and with broken tools, if necessary.

I don’t actually think that’ll be necessary. We’re in a dip. The pendulum is swinging the wrong way. I think it will swing back, and probably sooner than we think. I don’t think we’re facing the beginning of the end of the rule of law, even if, in darker moments, that looks all too plausible.

Don’t let the bastards grind you down.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has. — Margaret Mead
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