The number of practicing and non-practicing solicitors has fallen – for the first time in more than 20 years.
According to the latest annual statistical report from the Law Society, which covers the year to 31 July 2013, the number of practising certificate (PC) holders stood at 127,676, a fall of 0.9% on the previous year. The number of non-practicing solicitors also fell slightly.
Meanwhile, the number of private practice firms dropped to 9,807, the lowest level recorded since a change was made to the way in which they are counted in 2007.
The decline was steepest not in the number of sole practices, which fell by 3.6%, but in the number of firms with 26 to 80 partners, down by 8.1%.
The only growth category were the biggest firms, with 81 or more partners, which grew by 3.6% to a total of 60.
The shift from partnerships to incorporated practices continued, with incorporated firms enjoying a 10% larger share of the total number of offices by 31 July 2013 than the previous year.
By this time, 176 alternative business structures were up and running. A narrow majority of them, 52%, were incorporated.
The proportion of solicitors working in-house continued to increase, rising to 20.5% of PC holders from only 14.3% 10 years earlier.
The parts of England and Wales least well served in terms of the amount of law firms compared to the general population are the Midlands and the South West. The South West has 9.4% of the population, but only just over 6% of the law firms.
Women make up of 47.7% of PC holders, but this rises to 61% of those aged 35 and under. In all ethnic minority groups, women account for the majority of PC holders.
This is most noticeable among Afro-Caribbean PC holders, where 72% are women, followed by Chinese practicing solicitors, where the figure is 62%.
The gap in the proportion of men becoming partners, as opposed as to women, narrowly only slightly by the summer of 2013 – 45% of men are partners, compared to 20% of women.
As the number of solicitors has grown in the past 20 years, the percentage of women becoming partners has fallen sharply, from just over half in 1993, to 40% in 2003 and only 34.4% now.
Des Hudson, Law Society chief executive, said: “Change and competition within the legal sector is intensifying and this is having a major impact on many businesses.
“An improvement in the economy has not yet fed through to all solicitors, and many smaller firms are struggling in the wake of fundamental changes in areas of work such as legal aid, civil justice and family law.”