4 legal practice areas struggling as a result of COVID-19

4 legal practice areas struggling as a result of COVID-19

The pandemic has created a number of challenges for the legal sector - and while some practice areas have been lucky enough to thrive during these unprecedented times, others have struggled by significant drops in workload, while others have been delayed by backlogs. 

The majority of legal practice areas have experienced a decline, but these four are the hardest hit according to the Gross Legal Product (GLP) Index, which used anonymised and aggregated data from the Bar Council to showcase which areas are growing and declining during COVID-19.

1) Property

It’s been a rollercoaster year for residential property. When the property market shut down in Q2 2020, sales volumes collapsed.

While there was a strong rebound in Q4 2020 (+15% on the previous year - the highest absolute sales volumes since 2016), this didn’t prevent 2020 ending -13% on 2019.

House prices have been resilient, which as a leading indicator suggests a healthier picture for 2021. However, this is more a function of supply/demand imbalance than strong fundamentals – the number of houses built in 2020 was down significantly (-26%).

This will create an inevitable capacity crunch – even if prices continue to climb a lack of supply will act as a break on growth in legal work.

The picture is similarly complex for commercial property. We know there has been a big increase in advisory activity, as businesses reviewed their rents and rethought their real-estate portfolio. All of this has generated lots of work for Property lawyers, but the behind closed doors nature of the work means it cannot easily be captured by the GLP model.

2) Immigration

For the first time the GLP Index lays bare the full impact of 2020 on immigration legal work. The 100% drop in immigration in Q3 and Q4 brought most work to a halt for immigration practitioners, with a huge decline for the whole of 2020 (-55%).

It doesn’t look like the situation will improve during the first half of 2021, with significant limitations on global movement still in place. The reality that people aren’t moving for work in the same way as before is reflected in the numbers.

Brexit is undoubtedly a factor in decisions about whether to move in or out of the UK. Total visa applications are two thirds down in 2020 vs 2019, with no sign yet of rebounding as of Q4 2020.

There are a couple of pockets of potential hope. Student visas grew 97% in Q4 2020, following delays earlier in the year. This reflects underlying pent-up demand as international students temporarily delayed decisions to come to the UK to study.

Applications for British Citizenship have also recovered, with a -43% drop in Q2 2020 offset by growth of the same amount in Q4 2020. Despite headlines about Priti Patel facing down lawyers on the tarmac, Enforced Returns were actually also down substantially (-50% vs 2019).

3) Competition

The exposure of competition work to mergers and acquisitions (M&A) activity has made 2020 a difficult year for this area of law, with significant reductions in M&A activity (UK inward and outward M&A activity volumes both fell -27% in 2020 vs 2019).

Regulatory action has declined in some areas due to the pandemic, with cartel decisions by the regulator down -40%. However, the Competition Appeal Tribunal has delivered a significant increase in the number of judgments it passed down (+25% on 2019).

The spread of COVID-19 and closure of international borders caused global trade to drop substantially in 2020 (-17% compared to 2019). This decline began to soften slightly in the latter half of the year (despite the impact of the evergreen delay to Suez trade flows!).

4) Criminal litigation

Criminal litigation has received the most attention in the news during COVID-19, although as our model shows, it proved more resilient than civil litigation.

The drop in demand for criminal litigation during COVID-19 is partly a function of fewer crimes (that we know of) being committed, as well as the CPS’s Interim Charging Protocol.

Magistrates' courts have fared little better than the Crown Court at maintaining case volumes. The backlog has reached a historical high. It will take years to clear and require radical new solutions from the Government and legal industry


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About the author:
Dylan is the Content Lead at LexisNexis UK. Prior to writing about law, he covered topics including business, technology, retail, talent management and advertising.