2014 was not all about bad news.
I worry what future generations of Gazette readers will make of 2014.
Based on the most-read stories of the year, they may assume it was 12 months of misery, redundancies and controversy over a solicitor-advocate who (allegedly) resembled a character from Harry Potter.
Whether it was the SRA naming firms who did not reinsure in 2013 to firms such as Barnetts and Linder Myers (which would ultimately survive) facing administration, readers couldn’t seem to get enough of a bad news story.
Yet the high click-rates on miserable stories paints a misleading picture. If anything should characterise 2014 it should be the remarkable resilience of the legal profession.
Twelve months ago, those experts who are paid fortunes to predict armageddon in conferences were pretty much resolved: the legal market was on the verge of breakdown. Regulation of the sector had left firms on their knees and competition from alternative business structures would finish them off.
In the event, we have not seen a single top-100 firm fold, most larger firms reported decent profit margins and the flag-bearer for the big brands poised to take over the legal market hit the brakes. The Co-op’s reining in of its ambitions was probably the story of the year, with the company finding that brand awareness – the USP of a retailer entering the legal business – was a double-edged sword when other parts of the brand were struggling so badly.
Even the death of the high street has been largely exaggerated. England and Wales still retains more than 10,000 firms, and the overall number fell by just 250 during the year.
From January to the end of August, 582 new firms opened against 450 that closed. This is a market that is attracting people to start new businesses – hardly a sign of a sector in meltdown.
Banks tell me they are keener than ever to lend to the legal sector, while the indemnity insurance renewal period was notable only for its relative tranquility. I understand there has been no significant increase in the number of firms entering October without insurance renewals – and those that have are largely winding down their business in an orderly fashion.
Of course, dangers lurk on the horizon. Market experts suggest that more businesses are likely to fail in a recovery than in a recession.
There is a lingering sense that problems at law firms have been put on hold rather than really addressed. Most personal injury practices have relied on cases subject to pre-Jackson rules, but these will inevitably dry up in 2015. Many firms, I suspect, have also been propped up by increased cash injections from partners.
There may well be more bad news stories dominating our charts at the end of 2015. But for now to suggest the legal sector was in a malaise in 2014 would be wrong. There is life in the old profession yet.
John Hyde is a Gazette reporter