Growing reluctance to report ethnicity to the regulator could harm work on monitoring the diversity of solicitors, according to the latest annual snapshot of the profession, published on Friday.

The Law Society’s Annual Statistics Report 2020 paints a picture of a profession that is majority female and in which the proportion of people from a minority ethnic background exceeds that of the general population in most of the country. However the statistics indicate that the more senior and higher paying ranks of the profession remain a disproportionately white male preserve.

The latest report gives a snapshot of the profession as of 31 July 2020.

Overall, on that date, 202,374 solicitors were on the roll, 3.3% more than in the previous year. However the number of practising certificate holders rose by 2%, to 149,891. The number of registered private practice firms continued to fall, by 2.5% to 9,109. Sole practitioners make up more than 43% of all firms, down by 3.6% from the previous year.

Another long-term trend is the growth in the proportion of solicitors working in-house, which rose by one percentage point, to 24% of all PC holders. This is likely to be an underestimate because of under-reporting, the Society notes.

Women comfortably exceed men in the profession, making up 52% of all practising certificate holders. The representation of women is most marked in some parts of the public sector, with women making up 71.6% of solicitors employed in local government and 62.9% in the Crown Prosecution Service. Another striking imbalance is in academic qualification: two women achieve a first degree in law for every man.  

PC holders from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds exceeded the BAME share of the working population in every region except the north-east of England, Wales and, most dramatically, Greater London. As a region, London has a near monopoly of firms with more than 80 partners, but these have a smaller proportion of BAME solicitors than small firms, the figures suggest.

However the 2020 figures show the overall percentage of PC holders from a BAME background falling.

‘This is likely due to an increase of non-reporting of ethnicity,’ the report states. The statistics show a record 33,500 ‘unknown ethnic origins’, nearly 5,000 more than the previous year. The report observes: ‘Most newly admitted solicitors do not provide their ethnic origin on the mySRA website. Unless this data is collected through other means, the ability to monitor diversity trends based on individuals’ ethnicity will be further impacted.’

The figures show the early impact of the pandemic, with trainee registrations dropping by 11.3% on the previous year – and by 59% between April and July 2020. Trainees were markedly reluctant to state their gender, with only five registered trainees sharing this information.