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Changing face of Scotland's legal profession

1 April 01

Analysis of two wide-ranging studies into the changing shape of the legal profession confirms women and in-house lawyers are on the rise

by Bruce Ritchie, Suzy Powell

A significant growth in the number of women solicitors, coupled with a dramatic rise in the number of assistants is a strong indication that the legal profession is not just moving with the times, but playing a key role in the growth of the Scottish economy.

The number of in-house lawyers has also reached an all-time high, while the age profile of the Scottish legal profession shows there are almost exactly as many solicitors over 40 as under 40 years.

Two wide-reaching surveys of firms carried out by the Society, combined with statistics on the membership of the Society over the last 20 years, show that there have been dramatic changes in the profession including:

  • A boom in the number of in-house lawyers – almost doubling in the last 20 years
  • A dramatic increase in the number of assistants (including associates) in private practice - 918 in 1980 to 2,404 in 2000
  • A more modest increase in number of partners – from 2,951 in 1980 to 3,818 in 2000
  • A huge rise in number of women solicitors – from 15% of the profession (864) in 1980 to 38% (4,118) in 2000
  • A leap in the number of solicitors in the 40-50 age group from 15% (860) of the profession in 1980 to 29% (3,143) in 2000.

In 1980 there were 4,810 solicitors with Practising Certificates, compared with 8,609 in 2000. The number on the Roll increased in the same period from 5,867 to 10,742 last year.

There has been a larger increase in the number of in-house lawyers, including those in the Procurator Fiscal service, than in private practice - from 941 in 1980 to 1,581 in 2000. In-house lawyers now make up 21% of the profession. The reason for this would appear to be the sheer increase in the amount of legal business facing companies, organisations and local authorities. The great majority of in-house lawyers - 80% - work in central and local government and public bodies, with 20% in commerce and industry.

The second area of significant growth is in the number of assistants in private practice, particularly relevant when compared to the number of partners.

In 1980 there were over three times as many partners as assistants (2,951 partners, and 918 assistants). Associates were only introduced in 1987. By 2000 the proportion of partners to employed solicitors (including associates) had dropped to 3:2 with 3,818 partners and 2,404 assistants. This change reflects the pattern of mergers and expansion of larger firms which has led to the creation of large workforces in the bigger firms and a higher ratio of employed fee earners to partners.

Alastair Thornton, President of the Society, said: "When firms merge or expand and increase their workforce there is a tendency to employ more solicitors to gain better gearing and to create more positions of associate as a step towards partnership. As a result, solicitors are working for longer as employees and gaining more experience in their chosen field of law."

The number of women solicitors in Scotland has also significantly increased from 864 twenty years ago (15% of the total number of solicitors on the Roll), to 4,118 last year (38% of the Roll).The number of women entering the profession now outstrips the number of men: 132 women entered the profession in 1980 compared to 213 last year, while 265 men were admitted in 1980 and 164 last year. The total number of entrants to the profession has decreased slightly in the same time period, from 397 to 377.

"The number of women working in the profession reflects the general trend of the last 20 years seen in many professions, where attitudes over careers of both employers and women have changed," said Alastair.

The average age of the profession has fluctuated in the past 20 years. In 1985, the profession was at its youngest in 30 years, with 61% under 40 years. In the last decade, the average age has increased again and by last year 49% of the profession was under 40.

The Value of the Profession to the Scottish Economy

An employment survey – the first of its kind by the Society – was carried out last year to find out about people working in private practice and their value to the Scottish economy.

Firms took part in the survey from across Scotland, including all the major towns and cities, and rural areas including Orkney and Shetland.

It revealed that around 21,500 people are employed by firms in private practice in Scotland contributing almost £305 million to the Scottish economy in salaries alone.

Half of Scotland’s 1,260 firms responded to the survey. On average, 17 people were employed in each firm which took part, and the average employee’s salary was £14,197. Employees include everyone who is not a partner, whether full or part-time staff. The average salary bill for firms was £241,646.

Thirty six firms surveyed had a total wage bill of less than £10,000 each. By comparison 31 firms had wage bills in excess of £1 million. The largest number of employees in a firm was 284 and 22 firms had no employees.

"A 50% response to the employment survey was extremely useful in that it gives a good representation of the picture throughout Scotland from firms large and small. The results make interesting reading. The vast majority of firms are small businesses. The average firm has 3.5 partners, two assistants and a total of less than 20 employees. Taken together, however, they make a massive contribution to Scotland’s economic prosperity in towns and small communities as well as cities throughout the country," said Alastair.

"I think that statistics like this will come as a surprise to many people outwith the profession, who have preconceptions about law firms and the legal profession.

"For the profession it is natural to compare like with like and look where they sit in the profession as a whole, and for the Society surveys like this are a valuable benchmark of the health of the profession."

Bruce Ritchie and Suzy Powell,
The Law Society of Scotland