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Career Journeys: working as a Social Welfare Paralegal

From criticising Creon in Sophocles’ Antigone to developing expertise in social securities, housing and public law, here Jeremy Ogilvie-Harris shares his journey from studying Classics to becoming a Social Welfare Paralegal.

Name Jeremy Ogilvie-Harris
Degree Course MA (Hons) Classics
Year of Graduation 2016

What path has your career taken since graduation?

Picture of Jeremy Ogilvie-Harris
Jeremy Ogilvie-Harris

I am currently a social welfare paralegal at Hackney Community Law Centre.

After graduating from Edinburgh in July 2016, I undertook the Graduate Diploma in Law in 2016-2017 and the Bar Professional Training Course in 2017-2018. Whilst studying, I volunteered for and was involved in various pro bono projects: clinic manager of the Dalston Debt and Consumer Advice Clinic; student director of the BPP Enterprise Clinic; advice line volunteer at Liberty; and volunteer researcher at Big Brother Watch. My first experience in the social welfare sector was as a welfare benefits tribunal advocate for Hackney Community Law Centre starting in April 2017. I was tasked with representing vulnerable clients who had been rejected for disability benefits in the Tribunal System. My volunteering led directly to the Law Centre offering me an internship in January 2019, where I assisted with housing law while continued to represent benefits claimants.  In July 2019, I was offered a role as Social Welfare Paralegal.

As Social Welfare Paralegal, my core areas of developing expertise are social securities, housing and public law. My responsibilities span from advising benefits claimants on what benefits they can claim to representing tenants in disrepair claims in County Court. Many of my clients are vulnerable - survivors of domestic violence, refugees, single parents or former children who were in the care of the Local Authority. I help them obtain housing when they are homeless, benefits when they are in poverty, and relief when they are wronged. Often when people approach me for assistance with their legal problems, they are stressed and feel overwhelmed. I find it rewarding when explaining to my client what steps we can take to resolve their issue calms them down and am thrilled whenever we are successful. However, the role can be difficult and taxing especially since not every case can be won and the law cannot necessarily be changed.

How have you used the skills and/or knowledge developed during your degree in your career?

Studying a non-legal degree can be a great starting point for developing a career in law. Although the benefits are manifold, the following are some examples of transferrable skills. Classics honed my attention to detail and understanding of language. For example, much of my job involves the interpretation of legislation. Since I started my legal education, I have found that my knowledge of grammar has greatly assisted in the considering the meaning of statutes. Further, as a humanities subject, Classics developed my written communication skills as well as my ability to construct (or deconstruct) arguments. This gave me an advantage when learning to draft legal documents and make legal submissions.

What do you think was the most valuable aspect of your time at Edinburgh in preparation for your career?

Broadly speaking, the substance of my degree has shaped my perspective of the world, whether criticising Creon in Sophocles’ Antigone for transgressing the unwritten natural laws or reading about the failed overseas wars fought by Athens in the 5th Century BCE.

My studies developed my drive to help others, uphold good administration, and seek remedies for those who have been wronged. More specifically, my lecturers at Edinburgh always pushed me to learn and develop my academic and forensic ability. While taking a course of Homer’s Iliad taught by Professor Douglas Cairns, he encouraged us to not only see what the characters were doing but to try to understand the motives behind their actions. Identifying and acting upon your clients’ concerns and objectives is a vital component of succeeding in law. I use this skill to assist my clients to the best of my abilities every day.

What advice would you give to students who are interested in your area of work?

The earlier you start in building up your knowledge and experience of the legal sector you wish to join, the more likely you are to find success. In a highly competitive legal world, it can be difficult for employers to differentiate between students based on academics alone. It is important, then, to actively search out opportunities such as volunteering or internships, build a strong CV, and understand what it means to work in the social justice sector. Persistence and an eagerness to learn are key because only a few individuals will get to where they want to be straight away.

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