Immigration and civil litigation were the two areas of legal practice hit hardest by the pandemic last year, with private client and family law “insulated” from the impact, new research has found.
Demand for immigration work declined by 47%, while criminal litigation held up much better than civil – with demand falling by 7% compared to 35% for civil.
The practice areas which grew fastest were risk and compliance, up by almost 22%, and commercial, up by almost 11%.
Demand for legal services generally declined by only 4.3%, rebounding strongly in the second quarter of 2020.
LexisNexis used its Gross Legal Product Index launched last year to study changes in demand for legal services. Employment litigation, which declined by only 4.9%, and family litigation, where the decline was less than 1%, were separated from the rest of civil litigation.
Researchers said there was evidence that employment litigation was “already recovering and will return to growth in early 2021”, while family litigation “remains the most stable area of litigation, seeing both smaller levels of growth prior to Covid-19 but much less impact from the pandemic”.
In the rest of civil litigation, by contrast, underlying demand has fallen sharply. The stay on property repossessions obviously all but stopped activity, while personal injury claims were down by just over 12% in 2020.
Personal injury was showing “some signs of bouncing back”, however, with 13% growth in the third quarter of 2020.
“While underlying demand for civil litigation will recover after Covid-19, there is not much sign of it yet. However, there remains the risk that any potential recovery will fall far short of compensating for 2020’s shortfall.”
The research said the number of civil cases progressing through the courts fell at a greater rate than criminal cases, despite “greater press attention on the latter”.
“Unlike other areas of litigation, there is no available backlog data. Nevertheless, the steep decline in cases progressing through the courts implies that the backlog will have risen significantly during Covid-19, though maybe not as much as in the criminal courts.”
Researchers said a “catastrophic decline in people movements in 2020 crashed legal activity” for immigration lawyers, with the impact of the pandemic “compounded by Brexit”, which helped reduce European migration by 78%.
“Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be light at the end of the immigration tunnel, so there is a pressing need to retool staff working in this area.” The report suggested staff could be redeployed in family or employment law departments.
LexisNexis said 2020 was a “rollercoaster year” for residential property. Despite the boom in conveyancing caused by the stamp duty land tax holiday, overall demand for property work fell by 13% during the year.
Private client and family work were both described by the report as “insulated” during 2020, with private client growing by 2.2% and family 2.7%.
Demand for private client services rose as “the spectre of the pandemic caused many to focus on end-of-life planning”, with growth of 75% in wills enquiries.
Family work returned to growth in the final quarter of 2020, ending in a “much better position than many practitioners will have expected to see”. This was helped by the family courts bringing more than 6% more cases to completion, “which has reduced the impact of lockdown”.
Applications and total disposed cases for domestic violence “shockingly grew” by over 20%.
The report described commercial work, up by almost 11%, as a “particularly resilient, counter-cyclical practice area”, with the challenges faced by companies during Covid-19 generating “a great deal of work” for lawyers.
Researchers said lawyers advising on risk and compliance should not expect “another year of growth” like 2020.
“Businesses have grappled with new ways of working, but will be able to bank most of the advances they’ve made. Nevertheless, the enormous amount of additional legal complexity will still take time to work through.”
Chris O’Connor, co-author of the report and head of segment marketing at LexisNexis, commented: “Whilst it’s been a difficult year for the industry, the GLP [Gross Legal Profit] Index demonstrates that many practice areas have bounced back as of Q4 2020.
“Now is the time for law firms specialising in those areas to seize this opportunity, and plan for further growth in the coming year.”
LexisNexis said the section of the report on litigation was compiled with the support of the Bar Council.