Reflections on work, legal aid and the welfare state

Reflections on work, legal aid and the welfare state

A legal aid worker's analysis of legal aid, and its role in preserving social peace in capitalist society.

I am a legal aid worker. This document is an anti-capitalist analysis of legal aid. It will try to counter reactionary perspectives on legal aid and the welfare state that I hear from people around me. I intend to share this with coworkers, friends, and other workers in order to start some conversations and encourage people to resist the system that exploits, alienates, and pacifies them.

I work in a legal aid office that serves people who need legal advice and representation but cannot afford a lawyer. I’m not a lawyer. My job involves representing people at residential tenancies and social assistance tribunals, and advocating for my clients’ legal rights in the face of decision-makers in the welfare bureaucracy, and to landlords. I also organize projects to get legal information out to the public by way of a phone line, handouts, workshops, etc. And because the legal aid office where I work teaches law school students, I’m also required to instruct students in social assistance and residential tenancies law.

A lot of my friends and family see my job as really cushy and respectable, and it is. I work in a law office. I don’t punch a clock because I’m on salary. I get some benefits and paid vacation. I am subject to very little supervision by management, and I’m relatively well-paid for someone with no degrees and little relevant work experience.

Respectability aside, I am of the working class. By this I mean that I have no choice but to work if I wish to survive, and that my activity at work produces knowledge and services that are essential in reproducing the system we live under (a system that keeps people poor, unemployed, and complacent). Now you may be thinking, “Didn’t you just say that your job was to advocate for the rights of the poor?” I did say that, but as I explain in more detail below, it is precisely this activity of advocating for my clients' rights that serves the interests of the system.

Working for the Welfare State
The activity I perform at work reproduces the state, specifically the welfare state apparatus which includes things like social assistance, public housing, and the healthcare system. History tells us the welfare state came about as a result of the "post-war compact" which was a compromise between the left and organized labour on one side, and the capitalist class on the other. The compromise was an agreement between the opposing interests; the left and labour would contain the struggle or poor and working people in exchange for various concessions from the capitalists in the form of relatively high wages for some industrial workers, unemployment insurance, social assistance, government subsidized housing, etc. This compact served to pacify working class militancy and to preserve the system in a time of crisis. Without the left and organized labour pacifying the working class, the system could not exist. Without the welfare state, including things like Legal Aid, the state in its present form could not exist.

The legal aid office where I work is dedicated to defending poor youth charged under the Youth Criminal Justice Act and to representing poor parents in family law matters (Child Protection, Custody, Access and Maintenance matters). Another big portion of our work is to represent clients in areas of administrative law such as social assistance and residential tenancies. My job is on the administrative law side of things.

My job has two main functions;

1) To reproduce the welfare state by providing legal services to poor people

2) To reproduce knowledge of the law in law school students as part of their required training

My job is to try to prevent people from falling through the cracks of the income assistance program, to help people maximize what meager benefits they are entitled to from the system, to prevent landlords from illegally evicting their tenants, and to seek compensation from landlords on behalf of tenants through residential tenancies division. Seeking recourse on behalf of poor people through established channels of recourse legitimizes and reproduces the state and class society. This activity also has the effect of perpetuating the myth that the State has an interest in justice for the poor and that social inequities can be addressed on an individual, case by case basis. Whatever minute positive impacts my work may have on my clients’ lives, those impacts will never become generalized, will never be felt by countless others facing similar hardships.

The other part of my job is to teach law school students about the areas of law I work in. Training students in these areas of law reproduces the legal system by training new lawyers and judges. A perspective which I often hear from coworkers is that by teaching areas of law that disproportionately impact poor people and which are not given much attention at the law school, our organization is training more socially conscious lawyers, and therefore contributing to a more just world.

This argument needs to be broken down. First of all, the vast, vast majority of students who are trained by our office will never do social assistance or landlord-tenant cases in their careers as lawyers because it is legal workers, community advocates, and social agency workers of various kinds, not lawyers, who do the work of defending peoples’ legal rights in these areas. Secondly, by training law students we are training members of the middle class who in many ways benefit from social hierarchies that are institutionalized by social assistance and residential tenancies legislation. The legal system is a key component of the state apparatus and essential to the reproduction of capitalist society.

Exploitation and Alienation
As a legal aid worker, I am exploited by my employer. I trade in my time and effort for money so I can purchase the necessities that make it possible for me to keep getting up and going to work (ie. rent and groceries) and the stuff I use to cope with the daily grind (ie. coffee, beer, cigarettes). Having no property, assets, or businesses with which to make income from, I have no other way to get money other than to work. As a worker I am also alienated from that which I produce. My activity at work is totally disconnected from my life and what’s important to me. Other than money, I get no personal benefit from working. In fact, my activity at work is of very little value to anyone, not even my clients. Because my work activity is so entrenched in the workings of the welfare state apparatus, it has no value other than reproducing the system which in turn dictates that I must continue to work if I wish to survive.

Many of my coworkers cite their relationships with their clients and their students as the most personally fulfilling aspects of their work. They enjoy being able to 'get things done' and to 'do a good job' for their clients, and they appreciate being able to share their knowledge of the law and legal procedure with their students. They believe that in working directly with poor people who are screwed by the system, they are doing 'good work in the community'. These sentiments represent the logic of charity in which poor people are viewed as defective human beings, unable to help themselves.

Charity is a cornerstone ideology of the welfare state system because it justifies the existence of gross social inequalities in class society. The state will often justify cuts to the welfare state by putting the responsibility for social welfare of its citizens in the hands of charities. Earlier this year the Nova Scotia government released a document entitled “Preventing Poverty. Promoting Prosperity.” in which it outlined its plan to decrease the number of people in the province receiving social assistance benefits while increasing funding for programs designed to push people back into the low wage workforce. The document speaks of Nova Scotia’s “culture of generosity” and appeals to Nova Scotians to “step up” when their family and neighbours are in need. This charitable rhetoric is designed to justify cuts to an already grossly inadequate system of social assistance.

My relationships with my clients are paternalistic, lawyer-client relationships. Clients are given an appointment time with me where they are asked to explain their situation and provide personal and financial information. I then conduct a legal analysis of their situation and provide them with information about the law and advice on what they can do to address their problem through the proper channels of recourse. Often I will advocate on their behalf and represent them before the appropriate administrative tribunal. I am a conveyor of specific knowledge essential to the maintenance of the system.

The lawyer-client relationship is alienating to both me and my clients. Often my clients feel like they have little control over their lives and that they have no means to address their problems themselves. Frequently they are directed to come see me by an authoritative figure in their life and may feel coerced into accessing the service in the first place. I see the same horrific situations play out in the lives of my clients day in and day out. People cut off welfare, parents having their children taken away, families evicted because they cannot afford to pay their rent, children living in bedbug infested apartments, people living in homeless shelters for months at a time with no hope of finding decent housing, and so on. The hardship, misery and crisis that define the lives of my clients have become mundane to me. I've become desensitized to the tangible human costs brought on by the social and economic inequalities of class society.

My clients turn to me in the hopes that I can push the right buttons, speak the correct language, and cite the proper policies and legislation that will solve their problem for them. When my clients resign themselves to being shepherded in this way they annihilate their own agency and become spectators of their own lives.

Though I occupy a more privileged position within the working class, at the end of the day I share the same class interests as my clients. Our relationship to the system is the same. We have to work or rely on sub-poverty rates of social assistance in order to get money to survive. We could all stand to benefit from the destruction of class society. If the resources at our disposal were owned in common and all our creative activity was geared toward producing what we need, rather than profits for others, we could all reach a higher potential as human beings. But because my relationships to my clients take the form of the lawyer-client relationship, we are unable to talk about our common class interests. We are unable to relate as members of the same class who could share a common project in the destruction of class society. Our relationship is mediated by state power; my client is a subject of that power and I am a functionary of it.

Resistance to Work
A question that's often on my mind is how I can resist the system that exploits and alienates me. A lot of the things I do at work are small, individual acts of resistance that help me cope with the work day and compensate me for the time and energy that's stolen from me. Even the smallest, most mundane things, like taking smoke breaks and bathroom breaks as frequently as possible are attempts to get back my lost time. I take long lunch breaks to meet up with friends to catch up or to discuss projects we work on together. I use the time I'm in the office to read things that interest me or to plan what I'm going to do on my time off work. I use the photocopiers and office supplies to print pamphlets, zines, articles and other texts for distribution. Most of this text was written at work. These are acts of resistance insofar as they help me cope, take back some of the time that is stolen from me, and get resources for anti-capitalist projects I work on, but they are basically all individual acts that have no potential to actually challenge or destroy the system if they remain isolated.

To really challenge, resist, and destroy the system we work under would require class-conscious, collective action by many workers. For instance, if many or all of my coworkers decided to use the resources at our disposal for collective, revolutionary activity, we could simultaneously resist our condition as workers (by refusing to do our jobs) and share the resources we have with the broader community in struggle. We could open up our offices and meeting spaces to the community at large to house revolutionary projects, hold community assemblies, and promote revolt against capitalism. If we did, we would be creating the conditions in which we could begin for instance, to relate to those people who were formerly our clients as people with whom we share class interests.

Expropriating of the property of the state and converting it to a space for the collective creative activity of the broader society would be an action in open confrontation with the system. It would invite repression from the State and would also open up new opportunities to link up with other people fighting back. Obviously such a project would not be able to exist in isolation. It would need to be linked up with other revolutionary projects and have the support of different sectors of the community.

Work is alienating, exploitative, stressful, and monotonous. I don't work because I find joy and fulfillment in the activity, or because I see myself on some sort of career path, or because I think my job actually makes the lives of my clients any better in the long run. I work because I need money to survive. I don’t have a choice but to work and my activity at work reproduces a system I despise.

As a legal aid worker I grease the wheels of the welfare state machine and ensure its continued legitimacy by accessing its official channels of recourse on behalf of my clients. My job alienates me from my clients as people with whom I share class interests. Finally, the sentiments I most often hear in defense of legal aid work, such as that the work is "good for the community" or that it "helps the poor", are couched in the logic of charity which actually serves to further legitimize the system.

The world I want to live in is one where there is no poverty and where all creative activity is geared toward meeting peoples' needs as defined by them. In this world there would be no welfare, no landlords, no police, no courts, no prisons, and therefore no legal aid offices. In this sense, I want to put myself out of work, to abolish myself as a worker, the working class as a class, and to create a classless and stateless society. Creating such a society will only be possible through the destruction of the current system, and this project of destruction can only begin as conversations between individuals that lead to actions by groups. My hope is that this text can help start those conversations.

Posted By

Sep 14 2009 19:58


Attached files


Sep 15 2009 09:40

Hi, thanks for this article, it being so personal makes it very engaging and interesting.

I used to work for charities, housing charities mostly, and so totally agree with the broad thrust of the article.

Housing charities function in a way similar to the welfare state, basically plugging some of the holes in the welfare state.

In terms of what collective struggles you could engage in, I suppose the potential ones you mention at the end ones which would require a very high level of militancy and class struggle generally, and so would be highly unlikely in the near future.

However, there could well be some sort of issues at your work which you could begin to discuss with colleagues dealing with in a collective way. For example if you are to receive a pay cut (or sub inflationary pay rise), or if a colleague is unfairly disciplined or dismissed, or if a new work practice is introduced which workers don't like...

One very small thing which I did think reading your article, at the housing charity I worked at me and some colleagues used to do like you and take smoking breaks as frequently as possible. Then one day we spoke about it and decided we would tell the non-smokers that they should be entitled to regular non smoking breaks, as it wasn't fair we could take breaks whenever we wanted but they couldn't. We then just started telling new members of staff this, and so it came to be, without management being involved. When they realise what was happening they didn't like it, but couldn't stop it because it would have been clearly unfair! Like I said, this is only a tiny thing, but it does help in a small way bring people together against the employer and the demands of the work, and makes your working day that little bit better.

Also, in the UK at least and in Italy I believe recently there have been small struggles over the provision of legal aid itself. As you say, legal aid to poor workers is part of the social wage, and now like all aspects of the social wage is under attack. So this is an area in which you could find common ground with your clients in trying to oppose.

Sep 15 2009 12:51

Thanks for the suggestions about collective struggles in the workplace but I'm not actually convinced that my workplace is particularly suited to collective struggle during a time of low class struggle. This is due to the fact that over half of the workforce at my office is composed of lawyers. As professionals, lawyers are pretty quick to defend their specialized role in society, their guild or profession, and the legal system as a whole. It's not apparent to me (at least in a practical way) that I share many common interests with the lawyers at work during this time of low struggle.

The legal aid office where I work is just one department of a large university in my town. What I've been doing is linking up with a few radicalized workers from different sectors and departments of the university including contract faculty members, TA's, custodians, administrative staff, etc. We are in the process of developing a collective analysis of the university's role in society, including its major tensions and contradictions which we intend to get out to other workers. We also want to hold forums where workers at the university can come to discuss the struggles in their sectors/departments.

I'd be interested to hear people's perspectives on the class interests of lawyers and any experiences people have with workplace struggles in law offices. I'm also looking for dope reads on the role of the university on society, its relationship to Capital, etc.

Joseph Kay
Sep 15 2009 13:12
bizcaz wrote:
I'd be interested to hear people's perspectives on the class interests of lawyers

i guess it depends on the lawyer. in large corporate law firms lawyers are probably skilled wage labourers with no more 'specialised role' to defend than any other skilled worker (nurses, IT nerds...). at the other end of the spectrum, a lot of lawyers are partners in their own firms, with employees of their own. perhaps many lawyers dream of becoming the latter even if they're the former, i don't know, but i don't think there's a one-size fits all class analysis for them, imho.

Sep 15 2009 13:18

The University project sounds interesting. Please feel free to post any stuff you come up with on libcom!

Couple of articles related to lawyers struggles:

French lawyers strike over new law in 2003:

Italian lawyers strike over legal reforms:

jef costello
Sep 17 2009 10:07

interesting article, thanks bizcaz

Sep 18 2009 09:30

I think your ideas are for you more important than bread for people. don't make theory more important than practical help for people.
problem is that you didn't use your position of helper to meet people with your ideas, you didn't try to connect people with similar problems in order that they start to fight for their interests, you just printed leaflets and zines in your office. so, if you say that other people feel without power against system, I could say for you the same. you have position to act against the state, to speak with people about it, but you are afraid for your own existence (job).
your describing of situation is good, although I am not agreed that poverty will radicalize people (dictators keep people in poverty and people kiss in ass authorities in order to get normal life, that's technics of ruling of dictators). I say everywhere also that people in the west are pacified with good life (south america has armed fight against ruling class, but surely not western europe), but I don't think like you that such people will suddenly stand up if they stay without food. they will not, people need time and support from other people in order to stand up. not paternal support, than friendly support, human support, working together and through fight: learning about liberation and freedom.
therefore, forget YOUR ideas, and start to work with people, to rise some questions, to connect them and speak with all of them at some meetings, give them time to think and to decide will they start to fight. you must make some plan, step by step, in order to come to that point that people understand problem with system, to get courage to fight and to start to fight, together.

Sep 18 2009 20:29
problem is that you didn't use your position of helper to meet people with your ideas, you didn't try to connect people with similar problems in order that they start to fight for their interests, you just printed leaflets and zines in your office. so, if you say that other people feel without power against system, I could say for you the same. you have position to act against the state, to speak with people about it, but you are afraid for your own existence (job).

I do discuss political perspectives with my clients when possible. Unfortunately this doesn't happen with the majority of my clients. Most of my clients are in crisis situations when they meet with me and have no interest is discussing politics. They come to legal aid looking for advice or assistance on a particular issue, when they leave my office they get on with their lives.

What I'm trying to get across in the piece is how legal aid and other charitable organizations function to alienate working class people from each other along the lines of helpers/clients. My clients meet with me expecting me to do things on their behalf, not to talk about our common class interests or how we could organize together. The institution in which we meet (legal aid) is designed to reproduce the legal system and the state, it's not conducive to any kind of revolutionary discussion or action between lawyer and client.

I've had a few clients who I've developed relationships with and with whom I've worked on projects with outside of legal aid. For instance a client of mine was living in an apartment building where most of the apartments were in disrepair (broken appliance, leaking ceilings, etc.). She was interested in pressuring the landlord to make repairs but was rightly disillusioned with the available legal recourse. She organized a demo where she and other tenants occupied the rental office of the landlord to demand repairs be made. Me and some comrades from an anti-poverty organization I was part of were able to support the action and add to the numbers. The action resulted in repairs getting made but things did not go any further because the tenants who organized the demo soon moved out of the building.

I am not agreed that poverty will radicalize people (dictators keep people in poverty and people kiss in ass authorities in order to get normal life, that's technics of ruling of dictators).

I don't think that poverty necessarily radicalizes people and I don't suggest that it does in my piece.

start to work with people, to rise some questions, to connect them and speak with all of them at some meetings, give them time to think and to decide will they start to fight. you must make some plan, step by step, in order to come to that point that people understand problem with system, to get courage to fight and to start to fight, together.

I will continue to share political perspectives with my clients when I can. I could probably do more in this regard in terms of sharing radical literature as well as news and histories about the struggles of tenants and unemployed people with clients who are interested.

Sep 19 2009 19:29

Nice pamphlet bizcaz. Your comments on the client-worker relationship is spot on and permeates more than just NGOs and charities but also activist run anti-poverty organizations. The major difference imho being that activist organizations are composed of rowdy volunteer social workers rather than restrained social workers who are on the clock.

Sep 20 2009 14:10
I'm also looking for dope reads on the role of the university on society, its relationship to Capital, etc.

This may be really predictable, but have you read The Poverty of Student Life? Like all situationist stuff, it's got a really dense writing style, but there's some interesting ideas beneath the jargon. I think.

Nov 13 2009 18:26

Another lawyer's struggle in Serbia here, a short "warning strike":