Future of the legal workforce

The legal services market will need to adapt to a more deregulated environment, stronger commercial pressures and increasing adoption of technology, the Law Society of England and Wales said as it released research to inform strategic workforce planning for the sector to 2027.

“Our analysis anticipates the shape of the future legal workforce, identifying trends and skills gaps based on a range of alternative scenarios, from technology adoption and Brexit to competition,” Law Society president Simon Davis said.

“Developments identified here will help define the roles and skills required for solicitor firms to perform successfully, while the Law Society will continue to refer to these findings to plan and develop relevant support for our members.”

Since 1993 the number of legal professionals has increased steadily, at an average rate of just under two per cent per year, from 61,329 to around 150,000 in 2017. Total employment in the legal services sector was estimated at 321,000 in 2017.

Key findings of Law Society’s Strategic Workforce Planning reports are that by 2027:

  • Employment in the legal services sector is projected to fall by 13,000 (4%)
  • Legal professionals are projected to comprise 57% of the workforce, and legal associate professionals (such as compliance officers) 15% (compared with 47% and 11% respectively in 2017)
  • Numbers of legal secretaries are projected to decline by nearly two thirds, other office support staff by a quarter - to account for 3% and 9% of the workforce respectively
  • There will be around 20 legal professionals per legal secretary, and five legal professionals for every secretary or other office support worker
  • Staff with degrees or other higher qualifications will account for more than 99% of the legal professionals workforce, 76% of the legal associate professionals workforce, and 80% of the senior support staff workforce.

The sector will need to recruit around 100,000 employees from 2017-2027, or around 10,000 per year, of which around 7,000 will be legal professionals and around 2,800 legal associate professionals.

At present around 3,100 graduates and 3,300 returners enter legal professional roles each year.

Simon Davis said: “Employers may need to engage even more with higher education providers to encourage talent into the sector and profession.

“The most prevalent skills gaps (although these gaps are decreasing) are likely to be around problem solving, client handling, and planning and organization.

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

“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.

“A core issue our research over many years has repeatedly alerted us to is a lag in diversity at the top of the profession.

“We believe one of the tools to address this is greater clarity and transparency about career pathways, including the skills and experience required to reach leadership positions.”

Read our research

Notes to editors

The Institute for Employment Studies’ modelling approach drew on the Law Society’s own projections of real financial turnover and employment for the sector, as well as historic data on the occupational structure of the sector, to forecast future employment levels among the different occupations, and within each occupation the likely qualifications profile. Findings from employer surveys into skills issues over recent years were extrapolated forward and combined with the occupational projections to estimate the size and nature of skills gaps in the future.

Alternative scenarios were developed considering alternative futures concerning: the take up of technology, particularly artificial intelligence; increased competition as a result of deregulation; increasing contracting out of support services; and increased supply to the sector from higher education as a result of the introduction of the new qualification system.

Additionally, two adjustments to the Law Society’s economic model have been developed to reflect alternative Brexit scenarios – a Canada-style Free Trade Agreement, and a World Trade Organisation trade deal – and the results of these have been used to assess the impact on the composition of employment.

The Law Society’s evidence base also includes the views of senior representatives from 20 private practice firms and four in-house legal teams on the changes and challenges currently facing the legal services sector, and what this will mean for how they recruit and train workers. Also reported on are the perceptions of a random sample of 1,503 solicitors on their experience of change, on current skill-sets and on aspects of job quality. In very broad terms, the analysis shows that most solicitors are satisfied with their working lives, but there is room for improvement in some areas. The process of workforce planning by solicitor firms, involving inclusive and deliberative employee engagement, could be used to provide further insights to improvements to job quality, wellbeing, productivity and performance.

About the Law Society

The Law Society is the independent professional body that works globally to support and represent solicitors, promoting the highest professional standards, the public interest and the rule of law.

Press office contact: Harriet Beaumont | 020 8049 3854