The Law Society’s latest Annual Statistics Report: Trends in the solicitors' profession, published today, provides an authoritative record of the numbers of practitioners and the types of organisations they work within in England and Wales.
But while the numbers in today's report are definitive, some lend themselves to subjective interpretation and are likely to provoke debate.
One example is the representation of women in the profession. Given that feminisation of the profession did not begin in earnest until the 1970s, the current proportion looks encouraging. According to the report, women account for nearly half of solicitors with practising certificates – 62,844 compared with 67,538 men. By 2017, there will be as many women solicitors as men.
Further, women outnumber men in all minority ethnic groups (though not in the category of white European solicitors) while a quarter of in-house lawyers with practising certificates are female, compared with 17.6% of men.
But what appears to be gender progress is marred by private practice numbers that suggest the law is good at attracting women but not so much at retaining and promoting them.
More than half of PC holders under the age of 35 are women. However the number of women starts to decline as solicitors get older. The margin between the number of male and female partners is substantial – 43.3% for men compared with 19.2% for women.
Some firms have been keen to announce their flexible working practices and female partnership targets, but there is still a lot more work to be done to help more women stay in the law as they get older.
The report produces a mixed bag of results for racial diversity issues. Representation of minority ethnic solicitors has more than doubled since 2000, but the numbers will undoubtedly prompt renewed debate about the introduction of diversity quotas. White Europeans account for more than three-quarters (77.3%) of the profession compared with 7.8% for Asians, 1.4% for Africans, 1.3% for Chinese and 0.7% for African-Caribbeans.
The lack of diversity is further highlighted by the number of minority ethnic partners in private practice. One-third (23,928) of white European solicitors were partners compared with one-fifth of BAME solicitors (1,683 Asians, 206 Africans, 125 Chinese and 92 African-Caribbeans). In contrast, BAME solicitors represented nearly one-third (31.5%) of assistants, compared with a little over a quarter (26.3%) of white Europeans.
Many of the questions raised at the recent launch of the Society's Ethnic Minority Lawyers Division suggest a sense of frustration among many BAME solicitors struggling to climb up the career ladder in the larger firms. Perhaps this is why they leave to set up their own practice – BAME represent 19% of sole practitioners compared with 7.3% of white Europeans who go it alone.
Market consolidation has become an ongoing trend that looks set to continue, with the number of private practice firms falling for a fourth consecutive year. There were 9,542 firms in 2014 compared with 10,413 in 2010. This decline will most likely continue should, for instance, there be further consolidation in the criminal legal aid market, where the number of duty provider contracts is being slashed and practitioners face a second 8.75% fee cut.
Practitioner groups say these government measures could result in the closure of more than 1,000 firms.
But while the number of firms has been falling, the number of practising solicitors has continued to rise, with the number exceeding 130,000 – 2.1% above the level recorded in 2013. Over one-third of practising solicitors can be found in the capital, with 19.8% working in City firms, confirming the profession's London-centric profile.
This is likely to continue, a result of the growing trend for larger firms to outsource support services to other parts of the UK where office space is cheaper and wages are lower, enabling them to squeeze more fee-earners into their existing and expensive - but reputationally important - London space.
Commenting on the report, Law Society chief executive Catherine Dixon said it was 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'.
Noting the gender and ethnicity gap for partner positions, Dixon said: '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 places, actually give a competitive advantage.'