This month's BASW Cymru Law PPEG blog is by Joel Martin, a former Local Authority solicitor, writing in a very personal and humorous way about his admiration of social workers.
If you are reading this, chances are you are a social worker, so I am guessing it has been a long day/long week/long year and therefore you’re probably deciding whether you want to carry on. Just in case you have decided not to read on, can I just tell you how fabulous that I think you are.
I know what you are thinking, “do I know you, who is this strange man telling me I’m fabulous, have we met?” It’s more than likely that we haven’t, so if you are anything like me, you probably prefer someone to have least bought you a drink before they start telling you how fabulous you are. Either that or I must be trying to sell you something. Do not worry though, reading on is unlikely to result in you acquiring a part ownership in a time share in Marbella. Unless of course you want a part ownership in a time share in Marbella, in which case please give me a ring.
Sorry, I should have introduced myself, ‘Hi I am Joel and I work in social services in a Welsh local authority.’ However, I am not a social worker in fact I was a practising solicitor who for 10 years for the same local authority, specialised in community care law. There, I said it! Just like with Alcoholics Anonymous, for good or for bad, I know that at heart I will always be a solicitor, even though I’m no longer practicing.
Technically, I am still on the solicitors roll, just in case you were musing why I do not practice anymore. I was never struck off. I was once reported to the Solicitors Regulation Authority by a person who owed money to the local authority for unpaid debts because they thought I was biased in favour of the local authority but given that I represented the local authority that complaint did not go anywhere.
So why is it that I am telling you that you are fabulous? Well, I think all social workers are fabulous. Now I know it is very dodgy to make such sweeping generalisations. I totally appreciate that all social workers are individuals. So, for the purposes of complete transparency, I am not saying that every social worker I ever met was a perfect social worker. However, if you work within the same local authority I do, when I am referring to less than perfect social workers, I am obviously not referring to you, I am talking about someone I met years ago, who no longer works for the authority and you don’t know and…I wish I hadn’t started this!
Anyway, back to you and why I think you are fabulous. You see I have a theory that most social workers get into social work to help other people, or at least that is one of the reasons. Let us be honest about it, it is not going to be for the money and fame that comes with the profession. I know that Keeping up with the Kardashians is ending but I cannot see Keeping up with the Social Workers, Made in Social Work, or The Only Way is Social Work ever getting a pilot let alone a series.
Getting into a profession to help others makes you special, it’s as simple as that. I must confess that I did not become a solicitor to help others; to be honest my plan by now would have been to have become a partner in a law firm, spending most of my days enjoying long lunches and playing golf with clients.
So, what went wrong you might ask? Well, I started off my legal career in the right direction; I had lined up a training contract with a medium sized commercial firm, but I had a year before that started so I managed to secure myself a little paralegal job with a local authority to tide me over. However, this is where I encountered social workers and social work for the first time and I’m glad to say that this changed my career course dramatically and I stayed working for that local authority. Although I don’t get to play golf or have long lunches with clients, I do get to see social work up close and work alongside social workers and that’s a much better deal.
If you are curious as to what my current role is, it’s mainly focussed on development of policy and some training of social work staff. I am therefore incredibly lucky that my remit allows me to cover areas like assessment, eligibility, care and support planning, mental capacity (including deprivation of liberty safeguards) mental health, continuing health care, financial charging and complaints, to name just a few. I really am extremely fortunate to have a job that I love, especially working alongside people (mainly social workers) who are so knowledgeable and caring.
When I started my legal career in the late nineties it was predominately focussed on child protection and a substantial amount of my time was spent with social workers attending case conferences and preparing court applications and witness statements. However, there was little adult social care law work.
Perhaps it was just me, but I think if you were an adult social worker in the nineties or earlier you could have gone for quite long periods without needing to speak to a local authority solicitor. Some of you might be thinking what bliss. Think about it, there was no Mental Capacity Act, no Court of Protection, and Luke Clements Community Care Law book, which is now a tome, was a mere pamphlet as was Richard Jones’ Mental Health Act manual.
However, certainly in adult social care law the dynamics have changed, and social workers need to spend more time with local authority lawyers and know more law themselves than was ever the case. You might consider law as something for solicitors and if you wanted to learn about law you would have become a solicitor, or you might consider it a necessary evil/a job hazard, or you might truly be interested in how the law shapes social work practice. Either way, the reality is that the relationship between social workers and solicitors will continue to get closer and hopefully a shared understanding and respect will only deepen.
From my own perspective I have loved having the opportunity of working with social workers both when I was a solicitor and in my current role. I think I have learnt a lot; I am more empathetic and my views on certain laws have changed. When I first started, I have to say that I thought the Human Rights Act was a bit of a complainant’s charter. The only time I would see it quoted was by people who were persistent complainants or vexatious litigants; the mention of the Human Rights Act and use of a typewriter in the nineties or early noughties were my red flags. However, I have come to realise what a valuable piece of legislation it is for protecting people’s rights.
That change of view came from listening to social workers advocate for their clients. Although I’d love to say that my views changed following a light bulb moment, it has been rather more of a gradual process; for me, the more time that I have spent around social workers, the more I have appreciated how, in the right hands, legislation really can help protect, and support others to protect, the most vulnerable in our society.
Oh, and I nearly forgot, there was another reason for writing this piece and it is shameless promotion (see despite inferring at the beginning I was not trying to sell you anything, I am now going to try! My wife’s distant relative – well, as distant as I can safely manage and stay married- did used to say all lawyers are liars).
If you are a social worker in Wales - or indeed anyone who has an interest in social care law and how it is developing - and want to learn from others, develop your skills and knowledge and try to help shape the future of law in Wales, can I recommend being part of the BASW Law in Wales Policy, Procedure and Education Group (PPEG)? It will cost you nothing in terms of money and little in terms of your time. Plus, they are a great group of people with a good sense of humour - after all they made me Vice Chair! This will astound you even further when I tell you that on my first day as a trainee solicitor in my local authority, instead of faxing court documents to the other side’s solicitors, I ended up faxing myself!
I think the kindness of the group to let me play a role just shows that social workers not only support the most vulnerable; they also support mediocre ex-solicitors. All joking aside, the group always accepts new members, so even if you are not a social worker you would be more than welcome. There are members from all sorts of professions in the group and we learn a lot from each other. Contact details are below, so please do get in touch.
Finally, I will end this piece by simply saying to all social workers, ‘thank you for all you do, you really are very special.’
In hindsight, I could have just saved myself the writing time and you the reading time and just posted a tweet thanking you for all you do. Typical solicitor, I took the long-winded option instead of the succinct one!
Contact the Law in Wales PPEG at email@example.com