The legal services sector is to shed 13,000 jobs in the decade to 2027 – with a further 22,000 at risk if technology brings radical change to the workforce, research for the Law Society has predicted.
Legal secretaries would be hardest hit, with numbers falling by two-thirds, while the number of lawyers would increase by almost 2% every year.
However, the number of lawyers would be reduced slightly by a no-deal Brexit, shrinking by almost 4% over the next six years.
Total employment in the law has risen from 254,000 in 1998 to a peak of 345,000 in 2009, before falling post-economic crisis to 329,000 in 2016
The proportion of lawyers in the legal workforce is expected to increase sharply over the 10-year period featured in the research, rising from 47% in 2017 to 57% by 2025.
Researchers from the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) used Law Society data to forecast future employment levels in the legal services sector.
To meet demand, the sector will need to recruit 7,000 new lawyers every year, a demand not currently met by the 3,100 graduates and 3,300 lawyers returning to work every year.
Researchers commented that law firms “may need to do more to engage with graduates from law courses to encourage them into the sector (as the majority choose to work in sectors outside legal services), although the changes to the legal education system may also assist with encouraging more law graduates to choose legal services”.
They said employers could also take action to increase the number of paralegals who became solicitors or barristers.
Researchers said the role of legal secretary would “largely vanish” by 2027. From two lawyers to one secretary in 1998 and five lawyers to one secretary in 2017, there are predicted to be 20 lawyers per secretary by 2027.
IES said interviews were carried out with senior lawyers at 20 law firms and four in-house teams, which suggested that lawyers were becoming “increasingly self-sufficient in terms of managing their own documents and diaries, particularly new entrants to the profession, and technology solutions such as voice recognition were also reducing the need for secretarial support”.
Researchers produced some additional employment forecasts based on ‘alternative scenarios’, such as a faster adoption of artificial intelligence and other technology.
This produced a greater decline in the number of people working in legal services, a fall of 22,000 by 2027. This included a 4% decrease in the number of lawyers.
Brexit was tested by applying two different scenarios to the data – a Canada-style free trade agreement and a no-deal World Trade Organisation arrangement.
Under the Canada scenario, employment in the legal sector fell by 1.8%, compared to 3.5% in the no-deal Brexit scenario. Both would cut the number of lawyers – by 2.2% under the Canada scenario and 3.9% under a no-deal Brexit.
The interviews showed that “very few firms” believed the new ways of working opened up by the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s Standards & Regulations would affect their business position.
“There was a perception that unregulated entities would undertake high volume, process driven work, with tight margins.
“Firms interviewed did not feel this would compete with the high-quality, high-value services they can offer clients.”
Several firms were supportive of the Solicitors Qualifying Exam in principle, IES noted.
“These companies usually had recent positive experiences of recruiting junior legal staff via non-traditional routes (i.e. solicitor apprenticeships and were broadly positive about establishing multiple routes to qualification and the diversity of talent at this could bring)…
“Firms were in favour of the ‘driving test’ approach, bringing everyone to a similar standard, which is clear and transparent.”
In some internal research on workforce and planning and career development also published this week, the Law Society said solicitors ranked their most important skills as ‘client handling’ (56%), writing and drafting (38%) and problem-solving (36%).
Around a fifth of legal services employers said it was difficult to obtain basic or advanced IT skills from new job applicants, particularly when hiring support staff.
Law Society president Simon Davis said: “Employers may need to engage even more with higher education providers to encourage talent into the sector and profession.
“The most prevalent skills gaps – although these gaps are decreasing – are likely to be around problem solving, client handling, and planning and organisation.
“Worryingly, this report also suggests the numbers of recruits exhibiting skills gaps in literacy and numeracy will be higher.”