Number of law firms continues to sink despite ever-expanding profession

Boyce: Happy to see more in-house solicitors

Law firm consolidation continues apace, with the number of practices in England and Wales falling by 1,200 over the last decade to 9,000, new research has shown.

It also revealed how the huge influx in women to the solicitors’ profession over recent years – their number is growing three times faster than men – has not translated itself into higher proportions of female partners.

The Law Society’s annual statistical report, for the year to 31 July 2021, recorded that the profession continued its relentless expansion, albeit at a slower pace over the past decade compared to the previous three – the 1970s was when the ranks of solicitors started to increase significantly.

For the first time last year, the number of solicitors with practising certificates (PC holders) topped 150,000 – at 153,282 – a 2% increase on 2020, while the number of solicitors on the roll hit another new record of 209,215, a 3% rise.

The number of women PC holders has increased five-fold over the past three decades and they became the majority five years ago. Women made up 53% of the profession last year, while representation of Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds continued to grow too, reaching 18% of those with known ethnicity.

These trends will only accelerate – among those starting law degrees, women outnumbered men by more than two to one, while 35% of students were from BAME backgrounds.

The number of students graduating with first degrees in law was also the highest on record at 18,927.

They will have fewer places to work, however. From 10,202 private practice law firms in 2011, the steady decline in numbers continued, to 9,020 last year. These firms had 12,005 offices between them.

There was a 2.3% drop in trainee registrations in 2020-21 to 5,495, the lowest figure in five years, and half of these jobs were in Greater London. The biggest law firms (81 partners or more) accounted for 40% of all trainee registrations, with firms of four partners or fewer another 25%.

The proportion of solicitors working in-house grew to 25%, in line with the 1% annual increase seen for some time, although the Law Society said this was still a likely underestimate as some PC holders were not officially recorded as working in-house.

Strikingly, only 18% of female solicitors in private practice were partners, compared to 39% of men, and these figures are little changed in 15 years; the report for 2006 recorded 40% of male solicitors as partners and 18% of women.

A quarter of BAME solicitors were partners, compared to 35% of White solicitors; BAME PC holders were three times as likely to be sole practitioners.

More generally, partnership has become a rarer status over the years. Last year, 28% of solicitors in private practice were partners but in 2007, for example, it was 38%, compared to 46% in 1997 and 66% in 1987.

In 2021, the median age for both male and female PC holders grew by one year, to 46 and 40 respectively. Women solicitors in private practice largely make up those who have been admitted for less than 20 years, with those admitted more than 20 years ago mainly men.

Law Society president I Stephanie Boyce said that, as an in-house lawyer herself, she was encouraged to see the growth in the numbers working in-house and of women and those from a BAME background.

“There is, however, more work to be done in increasing representation of those from Black, Asian and minority ethnic, and low socio-economic backgrounds, as well as increasing the number of women in the higher echelons of the profession.

“The decline in the number of firms also highlights the need for widespread investment in our justice system including legal aid rates to ensure lawyers are there when needed.”

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