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Too many lawyers? Blame the bankers

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The rocketing number of law graduates — and the topsy-like growth of the legal profession over the last generation — has got The Times worried. But the numbers aren’t as simple as they seem

Gordon Gekko back for the global recession

Are there too many lawyers in the UK?

It is a simple but fair question that pops up every so often. Indeed, it is usually rolled out in the middle to low-brow tabloid press whenever a ranting alleged terrorist with a prosthetic limb or an eye patch applies for judicial review of a deportation order, aided, scream the papers, by a phalanx of craven lawyers feathering their nests on ludicrously generous legal aid rates.

Today, however, The Times has piled into the debate in its high-profile Thunderer column following a news story. Yesterday, the paper’s highly respected legal affairs editor reported on recent figures suggesting the gap between the number of law graduates relative to vocational training places at law firms and chambers is wider than ever.

It is estimated that by next month there will be 17,500 recent law graduates, a figure boosted by another 4,000 conversion course graduates. That compares with statistics showing current solicitor training contracts standing at about 4,500, while barrister chamber pupillages are at a paltry 300 or so.

Now maths were never the Judge’s strong suit, but that appears to be a short fall of some 16,700.

But despite that widening chasm, the report pointed out that the profession as a whole has boomed over the last 34 years. In 1980, there were 40,000 practising solicitors in England and Wales and 4,500 practising barristers; the current figures are nearly 130,000 and 15,600, respectively.

A Chris Miller sagely comments on The Times article:

“As a barrister friend once told me: there are 16,000 barristers in England and Wales. There’s enough work for 8,000 of them. All the work is done by 4,000 of them.”

All these figures — and the apparently indisputable suggestion that lawyers are the professional group most resembling rabbits — triggered Ross Clark in today’s Times to call for the government to stem the growth. He suggested that the number of practising lawyers should be slashed by two thirds over the next 30 years, more or less returning to 1980s’ levels.

Why? “… every civilised society needs lawyers,” wrote Clark, “but having too many of them is a symptom of having too much law”. He also invokes the chicken-and-egg analogy:

“We end up with so much law because there are so many lawyers who stand to benefit from it.”

There may well be too much law, but arguably that is an issue for modern politicians, who seem convinced that the route to job justification lies in legislating. And, indeed, a significant proportion, albeit a minority, of those politicians consists of lawyers.

However, Clark slightly misaims his thunder. First, the disparity between law graduates and vocational training places is not as stark as it seems. Many law graduates don’t actually intend to practise law — they simply view the subject as an academically rigorous degree that will stand them in good stead in the wider jobs market.

In fact, there is no shortage of Legal Practice Course (LPC) or Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) places — indeed, many commentators argue there are too many places and that the quality of some courses is woefully low. So the real issue is whether there is a disparity between those graduating from the vocational courses and training contracts and pupillages.

And the answer is that there was a growing gap during the fallout from the global financial crisis-triggered economic downturn, but, in the case of the LPC, it has narrowed to a point where some say it is no longer relevant. The situation is worse regarding the BPTC, but that is arguably a reflection of the evolving structure of the legal profession.

But what about the topsy-like growth of the legal profession generally? Over the period concerning Clark, much of that has come in the City of London, and is almost a direct result of the Square Mile’s own boom as the financial capital of the world following 1986’s big bang deregulation in the markets.

These lawyers are transactional — or deals — solicitors. And some respected legal academics argue that the work they do — crunching international deal agreements 24 hours a day — does not actually require a legal qualification. Those in the glass towers of the City and Canary Wharf are not engaged in reserved areas of work, and only a minority conducts litigation.

So the boom in lawyers that Clark eloquently laments is not the result of a virus-like spread of law — or at least law that most ordinary people would recognise — but the result of the boom in financial services. And that is an issue with a whole different set of problems.

A curious side note to this discussion: there is no doubt that the Anglo-Saxon world is awash with lawyers. The common perception is that the US is the country most drenched with the species on a per capita basis, with England and Wales — again, mostly thanks to the City — close behind.

However, the reality is that statistically the most lawyered country in the world is … Israel. It is estimated that there is one lawyer per 170-200 people in Israel, while the Yanks manage only a per capita ratio of 1:290-300; and the UK lags behind on about a 1:400 ratio.