There are nearly three times as many solicitors now than there were 30 years ago, but the profession’s growth has slowed significantly over the past decade, new figures have shown.
The Law Society’s Annual Statistical Report, which provides a snapshot of the solicitors’ profession as at 31 July 2018, also showed just how female dominated the profession will become over the coming years as older, male solicitors retire.
There were 143,167 practising solicitors in 2018, up 2.7% on the year and 27.3% over the past decade. However, there were 50,684 in 1988, and growth was nearly 50% in each of the following two decades.
The slowdown is explained in part by the increasing number of solicitors working in-house, where they do not need practising certificates (PCs). Some 22.4% of solicitors were recorded as working in-house, but the report said this was “likely an underestimate where some PC holders recorded as not attached to an organisation are working in-house”. Almost 12% of PC holders were so recorded, up from around 6% historically.
In all, there were 188,868 people on the roll of solicitors.
Women made up 50.8% of practising solicitors – having become the majority in 2017 – and nearly 59% of all solicitors aged 45 or less. It is only the older age groups that men are in the majority.
The female majority is far greater at the junior end of the profession; 62.1% of newly qualifieds last year were women, as were 64.6% of new trainees and 67.5% of new law undergraduates.
The average age of women in private practice was more than six years lower than men. The report said: “The average age gap has reduced somewhat since 2008 across partner and non-partner groups –reflecting fewer women leaving the profession at younger ages.”
The share of practising solicitors from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) groups continued to increase, to 16.9% (from 16.5% in 2017).
“However, the completeness of the ethnicity data for solicitors continued to degrade, with 17% of all PC holders not supplying their ethnic background,” the report noted. Those from an Asian background made up more than half of BAME solicitors.
Nearly 40% of new undergraduate law students last year were from BAME groups.
At 9,452, the number of private practice firms registered at 31 July 2018 was slightly lower than a year earlier and nearly 1,000 fewer than in 2010, but it has remained broadly stable since 2015.
Limited companies continue to grow in popularity at the expense of traditional partnerships; 42% of all law firms were companies last year, an increase from 28% on 2014. London is home to one third of all private practice firms on a head-office basis. Women were significantly more likely than men to work in-house.
The gap between proportions of men and women represented at partner level declined marginally, but nearly 41% of male solicitors were partners, compared to just 18.6% of female solicitors. Some 24% of BAME solicitors were partners.
The report also revealed that the number of students graduating with first degrees in law from universities in England and Wales in 2018 was the highest on record at 16,256, 19% higher than in 2008.
“The number of new students accepted onto first degree law courses increased further (to 24,575 for 2018-19) which should provide for further growth in law graduates over the next three to five years,” it said.
The proportion of law graduates in England and Wales awarded first class degrees stood at a new high of 16.5%, while almost three=quarters received either a first or upper second degree. Women were more successful at doing so than men.
There were 5,811 new training contracts registered in the year to 31 July 2018 –an increase of almost 100 on the previous 12 months – but nearly 500 fewer than a decade earlier.