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Solicitors and social worth in the North East

Insurance lawyers have a new role model in Meg Kirby, the founder of a dynamic charity that provides urgent pro bono advice to terminally ill patients. John van der Luit-Drummond reports

25 September 2017

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Many would expect that to win an award for pro bono advice a law firm must be either involved in attention-grabbing, large-scale international litigation (such as Debevoise & Plimpton, which in 2016 helped overturn a Belize law criminalising homosexuality) or act in the continuing pursuit of access to justice in the post-LASPO world (see Hogan Lovells’ representation of nine victims of human trafficking in 2015, helping them obtain over £165,000 in compensation). Yet judges at this year’s Solicitors Journal Awards found one small charity with big aspirations to be the standout pro bono award submission of 2017.

Legacare UK is a dynamic charity based in the North East that helps people facing terminal or life-limiting illnesses by writing wills, drafting lasting powers of attorney, and giving advice on guardianship of children, deputyships, employment matters, debt, insurance claims, and housing and mortgage issues. The service is free to anybody who is in receipt of state benefits; earns less than £30,000 gross per annum; or has net liquid capital of £30,000 or less. Its simple aim is to enhance quality of life and reduce anxiety, removing an enormous burden from patients while they are at their most vulnerable.

The charity is the brainchild of solicitor Margaret (Meg) Kirby, a former City lawyer from Davies Lavery (bought by Kennedys in 2008) turned sole practitioner specialising in defendant insurance work. But why would an insurance lawyer leave a lucrative practice area to work pro bono for terminally ill clients? According to Kirby, it all started in 2009 when she attended an oncology unit with her father, who was suffering from a life-threatening illness and required a blood transfusion. What she saw that day shocked her. “There were so many young people having chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Many just sat there staring out the window or into space. There was lots of information from Macmillan about cancer, but I realised there was no information offering legal support. It struck me that many patients may need legal advice.”

Via her father’s consultant, a meeting was set up with doctors, nurses, occupational therapists, and social workers for her to learn about some of the many issues facing their patients. “Who is going to look after the children? What if they can’t afford to pay their rent or mortgage? Some were being harassed by banks and building societies, threatening repossession of their home. Many were in debt because they couldn’t work. A lot were frightened to talk to their employer because they were worried about losing their jobs. All those kinds of issues, many of which you wouldn’t get legal aid for. So I said I could help some of these people. Then the hurdles began.”

A ‘petty criminal’

The first obstacle to surmount was the NHS’s understandable worries about referring any patient, let alone the most vulnerable, to a law firm. “Doctors are very protective of their patients and didn’t want some ‘ambulance chaser’ or ‘fat cat’ taking advantage of them,” explains Kirby. The attitude and support of the medical professionals prompted Kirby to launch Legacare as a charitable vehicle to deliver the legal advice so desperately needed. However, that too was far from plain sailing, as it took the solicitor nine months to convince the Charity Commission that her aims were pure. “They confessed that they had not been confronted by a solicitor wanting to set up such a charity. It took them a while to get their head around the fact that I wanted to help vulnerable people.”

Then came the next stumbling block: the Solicitors Regulation Authority. As a sole practitioner, Kirby was prevented from being engaged in more than one business at a time, including charities, under rule 21 of the solicitors’ code of conduct. She therefore applied for a waiver. “It took nearly four years, during which they treated me like a petty criminal. They were horrendous. They wanted to know why I would give up earning £300 per hour to help vulnerable people. They thought there was something in it for me.”

Nevertheless, she persevered, finally receiving her waiver in January 2014. “If I had been charging my time dealing with the conflict, it would be in excess of £20,000. It was so arduous but we got there eventually.” Regardless of the regulatory risk, Kirby had already begun helping patients without the waiver. “I thought, ‘what the hell, the worst that can happen is that I get struck off’. Many of the patients were terminally ill and given their position, the fear of being struck off seemed so trivial.” In the meantime, however, Kirby lost her father to cancer. The loss turned her world upside down and in her grief she questioned whether she could continue driving the charity forward. She was also getting into debt.

“I was naïve in thinking that because we were so unique, people would flock to write cheques to support us. I had no idea there were 180,000 registered charities all vying for the same pots of money. Helping solicitors (even though it’s a charity) is not very emotive and it’s been difficult to get the message across about what we do and the impact we can make on people’s lives and deaths. The walls came tumbling down and my husband said, ‘You can’t have both. Either sell the house or stop running Legacare’. I said that I’d rather give up the house; we could always get another. Thankfully, his response was, ‘The house is bricks and mortar – the charity is your world’. So we sold the house and put vital funds into the charity.”

Making inroads

Kirby’s initial plan was to help two or three terminally ill patients per month. But since 2011 Legacare has helped just under 2,000 patients and their families in the North East. For the charity to continue its work, however, it requires donations of £300,000 a year in funding. This not inconsiderable sum allows Kirby and her team of 30 (which includes three solicitors, one paralegal, one part-time administrative assistant, and around 25 law students) to help up to 1,000 new patients, alongside existing patients, every year. Obtaining this funding is tough going, and Kirby admits she is struggling to make ends meet, but Legacare is starting to make inroads, slowly but surely building a rapport with the North East’s eight NHS trusts and their respective charitable arms. Three have now begun making donations to the charity after realising the obvious benefits in doing so.

“The majority of people we help – around 80 per cent – are coming to their end of life so we began working closely with palliative care teams. They helped us identify a huge gap in the transition of patient care,” explains Kirby. “A patient who is really poorly needs medical, social, pastoral, and psychological care, but if they need legal care and they can’t access it, it doesn’t matter how much other care they get because without legal help they aren’t going to have the quality of life and peace of mind they deserve. The trusts are now slowly beginning to see that legal help can be an integral part of patient care. However, NHS trusts do not have the funds for this novel approach to patient care, so the staff are going to their trust’s charitable funds as they want Legacare to form part of the care pathway for those patients who cannot afford to pay solicitors. It’s a very holistic way of providing the care a patient needs.”

Working at Legacare is an emotional rollercoaster, but Kirby’s team can’t afford to become desensitised to the pain, anguish, and fear they see day in, day out. To do so would be to rob their patients – she never calls them ‘clients’ – of the empathic support they need. “The day any of our solicitors became desensitised to their work would be the day they would have to stop working for Legacare. Holding a hand or crying with a patient builds trust. It makes such a huge impact. One lady said: ‘I never expected to see an angel in the form of a solicitor’. Another, after we had finished working for her, said: ‘If I pop my clogs tomorrow I’ll die happy’. For me, there is no job as rewarding as being able to make a difference to somebody’s life. To see their face change when you say ‘I can help you’ is just the most amazing feeling.”

Although keen for more lawyers to assist those in need, Kirby accepts it can be difficult for practitioners to support her charity’s aims, as the demands placed on a Legacare solicitor’s time are far from conducive to the running of the average legal practice. “A lot of patients are very anxious; they’ve never seen a solicitor before and they are having to divulge a lot of very personal and sensitive information. Sometimes, sadly, they are embarrassed by the predicament they find themselves in. We can find ourselves sitting for two hours while a patient offloads about their illness and fears before they even start talking about what help they need. Just allowing the patient to talk can help us identify all the issues. But if you are in private practice, much of that you couldn’t charge for.”

Furthermore, the Legacare team is often called out at short notice. “It’s very much like an emergency service. We can get a call saying a patient has only hours to live and therefore we need to attend immediately. There is a lot of time spent travelling across the North East. And quite often we are called out in the evenings and on weekends, because people don’t always die during office hours. On the whole, we aim to see patients within five days of referral but we like to make the appointment at the time the referral is made because we understand that, for many, knowing that the meeting has been arranged can, in itself, alleviate stress.”

Seeking help

Kirby has aspirations of rolling out her charity nationwide. But to do that would require either a huge increase in funding, or greater collaboration with a host of regional law firms. “It would be easy to recruit solicitors to work remotely in any part of the country and have the hub in Newcastle. We also need help when it comes to management, training, IT, you know, just advice on running a law firm would be invaluable to us. We are keen to learn, and equally if any firms were interested in supporting Legacare then we’d be delighted for them to come and shadow us.”

But other than the warm glow of knowing you’ve helped a worthy cause, what is in it for the hard-nosed managing partner with a business to run? For Kirby, the answer is simple: it is all about give and take. “We work closely with Newcastle University which sends us 25 law students every year. They get heavily involved in everything we do: attending on patients, drafting attendance notes, letters and pleadings, undertaking research, etc. Some have gone on to major commercial law firms with all this amazing experience they’ve gained from Legacare, putting them in the best stead for their new roles. You can’t get a much more powerful situation than helping a patient in their final days, watching them die. If you can deal with that you can deal with anything.”

And for those law firms that do want to make a difference, but can’t directly provide the manpower to do so, there are other ways of helping. David Cliff is the managing director of North East coaching company Gedanken. Over the last year he has been providing support to the charity. “Organisations like Legacare have real social worth in our community,” he says. “Such organisations are an embodiment of how the law can enable and empower people in the darkest times of their lives, when one is facing one’s demise or mental incapacity.”

Cliff has focused on supporting Kirby’s leadership development and advising on how the organisation can grow in a cost-effective way that serves as many patients as possible, as he explains: “To grow Legacare, we’re making a very big ask of law firms to offer some pro bono time to the charity and consider possibly adopting Legacare for any financial support offered as part of their corporate and social responsibility endeavours. It is a great ambassador for the legal profession and the very best it can do for our communities.”

“We need support from other law firms,” says Kirby. “Referring clients in need to Legacare is a win-win situation because a firm will get the recognition of still trying to support somebody and we are there to help with issues that the patient has.” As a further incentive for firms, Kirby adds: “There is a huge gap in the market to help people with end of life support, but not just for those with money. If you can help one or two people who’ve got nothing, you don’t know who they know. You might be able to generate fee-paying work from them.”

Solicitors, says Kirby, are rarely seen in the best light. “I’ve seen that over the last six years, which is really saddening because we are a really good profession. And we should be working together to support this kind of initiative. It is the provision of legal help which is what we do best.”

Considering all this, it is hardly surprising that Legacare won the 2017 award for best pro bono initiative at the Solicitors Journal Awards. “A valuable service to a particularly vulnerable group. Excellent work!” said one judge. “This initiative stands out among the rest, as it is an area of pro bono that is completely overlooked,” said another. And of the charity’s founder, Kirby, one judge said it all: “Insurance lawyers have a new role model.”

John van der Luit-Drummond is deputy editor at Solicitors Journal

@JvdLD

John.vanderluit@solicitorsjournal.co.uk

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