News

Solicitor numbers rocket by 20% in face of tough economic climate

By on

When will the bubble burst? There are 190% more practising today than 30 years ago

Lead

Despite the worst economic crash for generations and the creeping use of legal process outsourcing, the UK’s biggest legal profession continued to grow like Topsy over the last decade.

Figures released earlier this week from the Law Society of England and Wales showed that the number of solicitors at law firms in the jurisdiction leapt by slightly more than 20% between 2004 and 2014.

In the boom mid-2000s — before bankers laid waste to the global economy — there were 75,709 solicitors in private practice; by last year, that figure had soared to 90,306.

And the increase over the last generation-plus has been even more dramatic, with the number of law firm solicitors rocketing by 133% since 1983, when there were just 38,674 in private practice.

The overall number of solicitors in practice — including those working in-house at corporations, central and local government — has also increased even more significantly.

That figure has risen by 35% since 2004 to 130,382 — and by 190% since 1984, when there was a mere 44,837 in practice.

Just how long that rate of increase can continue will be a subject of considerable geek debate, not least against a backdrop of falling training contract numbers at City law firms and the increased use of non-qualified paralegals for commoditised work at both commercial and high street practices.

Larger firm pull

Law Society researchers point out that in 2013 a statistical blip showed the number of practising solicitors slightly decreasing. But they blamed that drop on delays in processing practising certificate data that year — a thinly-veiled jibe at the Solicitors Regulation Authority, the body responsible for that role.

The society’s annual statistical report also illustrated the continuing consolidation of solicitors into larger law firms. The report’s authors point out that 15 years ago, 17% of private practice solicitors worked at larger law firms, defined as those of 81-plus partners. Today that figure is 28%.

But partnerships of all sizes appear to tightening their grip on law firm equity. The report shows that in 2004 nearly 37.5% of private practice solicitors were partners, today that figure has dropped below 33%.

There are currently 24% more men than women partners across the solicitors’ profession England and Wales, but the latter are gradually narrowing the gap. Ten years ago men had a 26.7% lead at partnership tables.