The trend towards fewer, bigger law firms and fewer partners is continuing, despite increasing numbers of practising solicitors, the annual Law Society statistical report has confirmed.
The number of firms, according to the society, fell last year to 9,542 from 9,807 in 2013. Although there have been changes in the way the data is categorised, the society said this was “consistent with the continuing downward trend”.
The society’s report, published yesterday, showed an increase in practising solicitors of 2.1% to 130,382 in the year to 31 July 2014. For the first time since 2002, there was an increase in the percentage of solicitors working in private practice – up by 1.2%.
The report revealed that, for the first time, the number of law firm partners or equivalents (such as members or directors) had fallen to less than a third (32%) of all solicitors.
The gap between the proportions of male and female solicitors who become partner remains “substantial”, the society said, though it is gradually declining. While 43% of men make it to this level, only 19% of women currently do.
The proportion of solicitors employed by the largest law firms, with 81 or more partners, continued its steady increase to 28%. The society said this had grown from 17% over the last 15 years. These firms have also expanded their share of trainees to almost two-fifths (38%).
The report confirmed the dominance of London and the City in the employment of trainee solicitors. Almost 36% of trainees were taken on in the City, and a further 19% in the rest of London.
London and the South East together accounted for almost 62% of training contracts, while the North West was well ahead of the other regions on 11%.
The number of first degree law graduates hit a new high of 17,925 last summer. “The figures do not provide the total number of graduates with qualifying law degrees, for example, joint honours degrees. Therefore the total number of graduates able to proceed to the legal practice course is likely to be substantially higher,” researchers said.
Students from BAME backgrounds made up 36.5% of law degree students, a proportion the society said had been steadily increasing. This was much higher than the proportion of BAME solicitors in the profession – currently 15% of those with known ethnic origin.
Unlike their White European colleagues, women solicitors from BAME backgrounds outnumbered men in every category. This was particularly striking for Afro-Caribbean solicitors, where 72% were women, a much higher proportion than for Asian solicitors, where it stood at 54%.
Around six out of ten PC holders aged 35 or younger were women, while men made up six out of ten above this age.
The society said that participation in the profession by women declined gradually with age, “reflecting the fact that women are more likely to leave and not return to the profession”.
Catherine Dixon, chief executive of the Law Society, said: “It is encouraging that the legal services market is back in the business of hiring after a rocky few years, although we know that some areas such as publicly-funded legal advice are likely to remain challenging.
“The legal landscape is changing and diversity is improving, but there is still a gender and ethnicity gap for partner positions.”