Brave new world for English solicitors

braveThe Law Society of England and Wales collects data on the make-up of the solicitors’ profession. Its report for 2021 has just been published. The profession has changed dramatically since IP Draughts started in practice, mostly for the better.

Among the eye-catching statistics:

  • There are now over 150,000 solicitors with practising certificates (compared with 57,000 in 1991)
  • 53% of them are women (and the vast majority of women have been admitted less than 20 years)
  • 18% are from Asian, Black or other ethnic minority backgrounds
  • 22% work in the City of London; over 50% work in Greater London (including the City) and the South East
  • 31% of solicitors in private practice work in firms with over 80 partners
  • Over 25% work in-house (including 14% in commerce and industry)

The charts that accompany the report provide a visual representation. There is a population bulge of women in the junior ranks, who seem likely to dominate the profession over the next decade or so.

Just as with national politics, there seem to be two nations in the solicitors’ profession. There is a metropolitan elite – commercial, thriving, internationally focused, working mostly in London and the South East; and there are the less fortunate – provincial, struggling financially (particularly if they are dependent on public funding), working in smaller, high-street firms, and in some cases serving the “left behind” in society.

This split will present challenges to the profession in future: values, responsibility and power.

  • Values. Is it possible to have a single profession with a single set of values and priorities, when different areas of practice diverge so dramatically?
  • Responsibility. Should City firms support and subsidise the work of their colleagues in less fashionable areas of law, particularly if the public funding for these activities dries up?
  • Power. Who should speak for the profession as a whole? What is the correct balance of power between commercial lawyers and others in the (elected) Law Society Council? At present power is still firmly in the hands of non-commercial lawyers, despite recent changes to the Law Society constitution. The Society retains a governance structure that reflects the make-up of the profession in earlier generations.

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