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Legal secretaries and support staff most at risk as industry loses up to 35,000 jobs by 2027

Legal secretaries and support staff will be the most affected by a decline in legal sector jobs in the next decade as the sector evolves and with increasing adoption of technology, according to a report commissioned by the Law Society.

Based on employment data gathered by the Institute for Employment Studies, the report estimates the UK legal sector will shed 13,000 jobs by 2027, a 4% drop on the 321,000 employed in 2017 and down from the pre-economic crisis peak of 345,000 in 2009. The most extreme prediction puts a further 22,000 jobs at risk if technology brings radical change to the workforce.

Legal secretary and support-staff jobs are the most vulnerable. While the number of legal professionals and associates is expected to continue rising by around 2% a year, legal secretaries have been declining since 2001 when they reached their highest proportion of the legal workforce – nearly a quarter – before dipping to reach 10% in 2017.

The research also predicts that legal secretary positions will fall by nearly two thirds in the next decade and ‘largely vanish’, while other office support staff will reduce by a quarter to account for 3% and 9% of the workforce respectively.

Based on interviews with senior representatives from 20 law firms and four in-house legal teams, the report says that legal professionals are becoming more self-sufficient in managing their diaries and that technological aids have been reducing the need for support from secretaries.

Office support roles are also becoming more ‘generalist’, combining personal assistant support for fee earners with other administrative tasks.

In 1998, there were two legal professionals to one legal secretary, but by 2017 ratios increased to five legal professionals per legal secretary, the report notes. By 2027, there are likely to be around 20 legal professionals per legal secretary, the report warns.

The last few years has seen several major City law firms cut legal support roles or relocate staff out of London in a bid to reduce costs, including Baker McKenzie, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer and Hogan Lovells, which last year cut 54 of around 500 business services roles in London.

The proportion of lawyers, meanwhile, is expected to increase strongly from 47% in 2017 to 57% by 2025. The report found the sector would therefore need to recruit 7,000 new lawyers a year, more than what is currently met by new graduates and those returning to work.

Staff with degrees or other higher qualifications will account for more than 99% of the legal professionals workforce, 76% of the legal associate professionals workforce and 80% of the senior support staff workforce.

But the most prevalent future skills gap in the profession is likely to centre around problem solving, client handling and planning and organisation, the study suggests.

‘For anyone aiming for a career in the law, it is worth noting that a common theme from employers was that firms were paying more attention in recruitment to people skills, such as communication and team working, whereas in the past they had only looked at technical legal skills. Commercial awareness and management skills were also seen as important,’ commented Law Society president Simon Davis.