Number of law firms continues to rise, now up 25% in a decade, figures show

Open for business: there are now nearly 10,500 law firms

The number of law firms in England and Wales has continued its inexorable rise, with 25% more in practice than a decade before, new figures have revealed.

The Law Society’s annual statistical report also shows the impact of the recession on the largest City practices, which employed 5% fewer solicitors in 2010 than two years previously – despite a 4% rise in solicitors working in private practice overall – with partner numbers taking a particular hit.

The report – which reflects the state of the profession as at 31 July 2010 – said there were 10,413 private practice law firms on that date, a slight increase on 2009. There were just 8,319 firms operating in 2000, although growth slowed in the second part of the decade.

It had been thought a few years ago that there were even more firms, but changes in data collection reduced the number. As a result the report’s authors say examining trends should be treated with “some caution”.

There were 20,318 practising solicitors working in the largest law firms (81 partners or more) in 2010 – 23% of all solicitors in private practice. This compares to 21,322 in 2008, when they comprised 26% of all solicitors. The number of partners fell 7% to 5,917.

The disparity between men and women in terms of partnership – exposed by previous editions of the report – shows little sign of improving. Some 48% of male private practice solicitors are partners, compared to 21% of females.

Though some of this is because there are more senior men in the profession than women, the report said: “Even after equalising the levels of experience, higher proportions of men achieved partnership status than women. In all of the experience bands, a lower proportion of women than men were partners or sole practitioners. Of solicitors in private practice with 10-19 years’ experience – the band with the greatest number of partners and sole practitioners – 72.4% of men were partners or sole practitioners, compared to only 44.6% women.”

Overall, there were 150,128 solicitors on the roll, 53% of whom were male, and 117,862 with practising certificates (54% male). Around 13% of solicitors with a known ethnicity came from minority ethnic (BME) groups.

The number of practising solicitors has more than tripled in just 30 years – there were 37,832 in 1980.

The report also illustrates the amazing growth in law as a subject for study – 19,000 applied for law at university in 1999, compared to more than 29,000 a decade later. The number accepted onto courses grew from 11,154 to almost 20,000 in the same period; almost a third of them are now from BME backgrounds.

However, after a fall of 19% in the number of students who then enrolled with the Law Society to study on the legal practice course between 2008 and 2009, to 8,098, the figure is back to virtually the same level it was a decade earlier – although there has been a massive increase in the number of full and part-time places on the LPC during that time, from 8,876 to 15,166. The number of training contracts fell 16% in 2009/10, to 4,874, the lowest level since 1998/99.

For the first time ever, the Law Society is charging for electronic copies of the report. It costs £99.


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