Ninety-five years after they were first allowed in, women are poised to overtake men next year in what new statistics confirm is a rapidly feminising solicitors’ profession.
Two-thirds of practising solicitors under 35 are women and the proportion of female law undergraduates and trainees is also continuing to climb.
Converting that numerical advance into partnerships remains an enduring challenge, however. One in five women PC-holders working in private practice is a partner, compared with over two in five men, though the gender disparity is narrowing slowly.
The figures appear in the annual statistical survey Trends in the solicitors’ profession, published today by the Law Society.
Some 93 years after Carrie Morrison became the first woman admitted as a solicitor in England and Wales, the number of women solicitors with PCs grew 4% in 2015 to over 65,000. Men accounted for 68,000, but that figure is growing much more slowly.
This year’s demographic snapshot also confirms the continuing expansion of the in-house sector, and London and the City’s growing pre-eminence. The in-house share of all PC holders attached to an organisation climbed to 22% in 2015, up from 20% five years earlier and 15% in 2000.
Since the global financial crisis, the number of PC-holders working in the City of London has soared by more than half to over 27,000 – 20% of the total. Of all practising solicitors, four in 10 (53,590) work in Greater London, a rise of 46% in a decade. Indeed, there are now more practising solicitors in Greater London than there were in England and Wales 30 years ago.
That reflects a huge increase from 2005 in particular, since when the number of PC-holders has climbed by more than one-third to 133,000. The trend continued in 2014/15, with growth of 2.3% year on year.
Representation of black, Asian and minority ethnic groups among PC-holders has doubled over the last 15 years to stand at 15.5% in 2015. But the report sounds a warning on diversity following a rise in people of unknown ethnicity, which reflects a move to online self-registration by new solicitors through the MySRA website. No ethnicity data was recorded for 45% of those admitted to the roll in 2014/15.
‘Without more complete ethnicity data for new admissions, the ability to monitor the ethnic composition of the profession will deteriorate,’ it warns.
Chancery Lane’s report also reports on structural changes at the firm level, noting that the number of private practice firms has fallen by just over 1,000 since 2010 to 9,403. However the rate of decline on 2014 slowed to 1.5% year on year. Almost half of domestic private practice firms operate as either a limited company or LLP.
The 359 ‘active’ alternative business structures at 31 July last year made up just 4% of firms but accounted for 11% of total turnover (£2.4bn).
Law Society chief executive Catherine Dixon (pictured) commented: ‘The legal sector contributes £25.7bn to the economy each year, with net exports now at £3.6bn per annum, so the growth in the sector indicated by our research is great news for the UK.
‘The significant increase in the number of commercial organisations employing practising solicitors reflects the central role of general counsel and in-house teams as business advisors who shape organisational risk culture and drive innovation.
‘However, we know that in some areas, such as publicly funded legal advice, recruitment is far more challenging.’
She added: ‘Continued consolidation in the market is evidenced by a rise in the number of solicitors working in private practice alongside a further fall in the number of private practice firms, which now stands at 1,000 fewer than five years ago.’