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English research shows changes in shape of legal workforce

10 December 2019

Research commissioned by the Law Society of England and Wales predicts a 4% fall in legal services sector employment, with legal professionals making up 57% of the workforce compared to 47% at present. Legal associate professionals will make up 15%, compared with 11% now.

The research is contained in two complementary reports: an independent study from the Institute for Employment Studies, Employment trends, workforce projections and solicitor firm perspectives, and a Law Society report which shares insights from its regular large-scale survey of individual solicitors.

One of the overall conclusions is that the United Kingdom's legal services market is facing widespread disruption with a more liberal regulatory environment, stronger commercial pressures, and increasing adoption of technology. These developments will impact the roles and skills that solicitor firms and teams need to perform successfully.

Numbers of legal secretaries are projected to decline by nearly two-thirds over the period to 2027, and other office staff by a quarter. It is predicted that there will be around 20 legal professionals per legal secretary, and five legal professionals for every secretary or other office support worker.

"Legal professionals" are defined as barristers and judges and solicitors, while "associate legal professionals" are job titles such as barrister's clerk, compliance officers, conveyancer, legal executive, paralegal.

The composition of the legal services sector in England and Wales has changed considerably over the last 25 years. Legal professionals have always been the largest group, although in 1993 they only just outnumbered other office support staff.

Since 1993 the number of legal professionals has increased steadily, at an average rate of just under 2% per year, to reach around 150,000 in 2017. The fastest increase has been among senior support staff, in roles related to finance, HR, marketing etc, at a rate of just over 5% per year.

There has been a modest increase in the number of legal associate professionals with a growth rate of just over 1% per year. The administrative and secretarial workforce, both legal and non-legal, has shrunk to around half the level it was in 1993, an average decline of just under 3% per year.

The proportion of senior support staff with degrees/HE qualifications has increased from around 50% in 1993 to 70% in 2017, and the proportion of legal associate professionals with degrees/HE qualifications has increased from 40% to 60% over this period. Among legal secretaries and other office support staff, there have been increases in the proportions with degrees/HE qualifications, and decreases in the proportions with no qualifications, or qualifications below GCSEs.

Law Society president Simon Davis says the most prevalent skills gaps - although these gaps are decreasing - are likely to be around problem solving, client handling, and planning and organisation.

“Worryingly, this report also suggests the numbers of recruits exhibiting skills gaps in literacy and numeracy will be higher," he says.

“For anyone aiming for a career in the law, it is worth noting that a common theme from employers was that firms were paying more attention in recruitment to people skills, such as communication and team working, whereas in the past they had only looked at technical legal skills. Commercial awareness and management skills were also seen as important."

New Zealand situation

While detailed information on the number of practising lawyers is available for New Zealand, data on other workers in the legal services industry is elusive. Statistics New Zealand states that at the 2018 Census there were 20,130 workers aged 15 years and above employed in legal services (the data is rated as "high quality"). A further 4,215 were employed in "Justice".

At 1 February 2018, a month before the 2018 Census (6 March 2018) there were 13,087 lawyers practising in New Zealand and a further 756 based overseas. Of these, 3,121 (237 of whom were overseas) were in-house lawyers and would not have been included in the "legal services" sector. If the Census data accurately captures all people working in the legal services industry, this indicates that 10,203 lawyers were working in the legal services industry alongside 9,927 non-lawyers - meaning around 50.6% of legal services industry workers were practising lawyers (the English research showed that lawyers were 47% of legal services industry participants there in 2017).

The New Zealand Institute of Legal Executives says it has more than 1100 members.

Last updated on the 10th December 2019