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Less male, pale and private practice: Surging in-house and female lawyer ranks keep the profession expanding

The future of the profession looks increasingly female and focused away from the traditional domination of private practice according to the most comprehensive demographic picture of the profession.

The latest Annual Statistics Report from the Law Society concludes that the legal profession in England and Wales is on course to have more female solicitors with practising certificates than men by 2017, thanks to a 3.7% annual hike in the number of practising women solicitors, with a total of 65,147, against 68,220 male solicitors as of July 2015.

A sustained influx of female lawyers has underpinned the expansion of the profession for 20 years, with the Law Society stating that women solicitor ranks have expanded 3.8% annually for the last five years, against 1.3% for male counterparts. The number of female partners is growing at a much slower rate, up 1.4% annually in the latest report.

The figures also confirm the continued expansion of the in-house profession, which reached 21.6% of the profession, against 21.1% in the 2015 report, outpacing a 2.3% increase in the general number of practising solicitors. Solicitors employed outside private practice last year increased by 3.6%.

This growth – which has been in evidence for 15 years – has been almost entirely driven by expansion in the private sector; the number of solicitors working in commerce and industry has increased from just over 5,000 in 2000, to over 16,000 in the latest figures.

Other key findings in the report, which covers the 12-month period to the end of July 2015, include:

  • Training contracts expanded sharply, rising 9.1% a year from 5,001 to 5,457
  • The profession continues to grow, albeit it at historically subdued levels. An overall 2.3% increase in the number of practising solicitors saw only a 0.8% increase in those working in private practice. There were 133,367 solicitors with practising certificates in England and Wales as of July 2015
  • The proportion of ethnic minority lawyers continues to rise, increasing 4% to hit 18,547
  • The number of private practice law firms in England and Wales is still shrinking, falling by 1.5% to 9,403
  • The average male lawyer is 46, against 40 for women

The findings raise a number of interesting points, notably contradicting a widespread view that the number of training contracts would shrink as the profession relies on para-professionals and technology to take on the work of junior lawyers. Nevertheless, the number of contracts on offer is still below the record number of 2007-08, when it exceeded 6,000.

The profession’s overall growth rate also remains relatively subdued against its long-term post-war trend, when the number of lawyers often increased by more than 3% a year.

Black Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) representation has more than doubled over the past 15 years, now representing 15.5% of solicitors with practising certificates. The proportion of BAME solicitors at partner level remained at 22% against the previous year. However, the improvement in minority representation has been driven largely by Asian and Chinese lawyers, identified as 12,398 out of a BAME total of 18,547.

The report notes 359 alternative business structures operating as of 31 July 2015 with at least one PC holder, an annual increase of 102.

There you have it. The legal industry continues to expand. The grip of senior male lawyers and private practice remain considerable but the profession continues to evolve into a broader and more diverse ecosystem.

For more on the profession’s changing shape, click here