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Women and BAME solicitors still underrepresented in UK law firms

Growth in number of practising solicitors as number of law firms continues to decline

27 April 2015

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By John van der Luit-Drummond, Deputy Editor, Solicitors Journal (@JvdLD)

The Law Society's latest annual statistics report has revealed a mixed bag of statistics on the current health and composition of the legal profession in England and Wales.

The results show a small growth in the number of practising solicitors. On 31 July 2014, there were 130,382, compared to 127,676 on 31 July 2013, which amounts to a 2.1 per cent increase, mainly due to more hires by larger law firms.

The report also shows an increase of four per cent of the number of solicitors in private practice, now totalling 90,306, representing the sharpest growth rate in nine years.

However, the number of private practice firms declined for the fourth consecutive year and was three per cent lower than in 2013.

The largest firms - those with 81 or more partners - employed 28 per cent of all private practitioners in 2014. The proportion in these firms has increased steadily from 17 per cent over the past15 years, while proportions employed in 5-10 partner, 11-25 partner, and 26-80 partner firms have all fallen.

At the same time, the number of in-house solicitors has grown. Those employed outside private practice increased from 23,443 in 2013 to 25,325 in 2014.

The Law Society's chief executive, Catherine Dixon, said: "It is encouraging that the legal services market is back in the business of hiring after a rocky few years, although we know that some areas such as publicly-funded legal advice are likely to remain challenging."

There was, however, bad news at the junior end of the profession, with the report noting a six per cent drop in the number of training contracts registered in the 12 months to 31 July 2014 compared with the year before.

The number of trainee solicitors commencing their training contracts in 2013 was 5,302, compared with 5,001 in 2014. This was despite the number of law graduates rising to 16,120.

Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) groups represented 36.5 per cent of all students accepted onto first-degree law courses - a proportion that has increased in recent years.

The report also found there were fewer new solicitors admitted to the role in the past year, with 6,345 in 2014 compared to 6,758.

Women solicitors

Elsewhere in the report, the profession's gender gap continued to close, with 48.2 per cent of solicitors now being women. By contrast, female practising solicitors accounted for 40.5 per cent of the profession a decade ago.

Women make up 60 per cent of practice certificate holders under the age of 35. However, the number of women partners was down from 8,115 in 2013 to 7,985 in 2014. The report said the difference between proportions of men and women represented at partner level in private practice remains substantial at 24 per cent.

Around one in four women employed with certificates now work in-house - a significantly greater proportion compared with male solicitors. The number of practising female solicitors with 20-plus years of experience working outside of private practice firms is notably higher than the proportion of women private practitioners with equivalent experience.

BAME solicitors

The report found that representation of BAME groups among practising solicitors has more than doubled since 2000 and now represents 15 per cent of the profession. Women account for 56 per cent of BAME solicitors.

BAME solicitors continue, however, to be underrepresented. Ethnicity statistics of partners in private practice firms showed 23,928 white Europeans, compared to 2,420 BAME solicitors.

The report also found that white Europeans are more likely than other ethnic groups to be partners, whereas BAME groups are generally more likely than white Europeans to be sole practitioners.

Around one third of BAME private practitioners work in a two-to-four-partner firm, although Chinese solicitors are the most highly represented group in the very largest firms.

"The legal landscape is changing and diversity is improving, but there is still a gender and ethnicity gap for partner positions," said Dixon. "Through our Diversity and Inclusion Charter, and by working closely with law firms, we aim to support the profession to share best practice and demonstrate that good diversity, inclusion and social mobility policies actually give a competitive advantage."

First published in sister publication Solicitors Journal.


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