Are we about to see a decline in the number of solicitors in law firms?

By Simon Goldhill

Traditionally, most solicitors firms employed lots of solicitors, some of whom have eventually ended up as the owners. Until recently, of course, that opportunity was available only to solicitors.

Underneath all of the solicitors came the support staff, but the qualified top layer was undoubtedly the one that really counted, certainly in the eyes of the profession itself. Just look at the pages of the Law Gazette (and better still, the comments on the online Gazette) and you will see the common articulation of those who oppose the liberalisation of the market focused around how solicitors are better/more trustworthy/more professional than non-qualified people because of their training.

My thoughts were drawn to this by the following passage in the SRA’s current consultation on the future of CPD, Training for tomorrow: A new approach to continuing competence:

“There is an important difference between the competence required when an individual starts their career as a solicitor, where it is more possible to identify a common baseline of activities that solicitors should be able to do competently, and continuing competence, where, because of the wide variety of roles and functions that qualified solicitors and regulated entities undertake, it is much more difficult to prescribe specific development needs.”

So the starting point for becoming a solicitor combines four or five years of high-level academics – a degree (law, or non-law followed by the Graduate Diploma in law) and then the Legal Practice course – together with two years of practical training in at least three separate areas of practice. All this does, however, is lay the foundation. The real work in turning pre-prepared, but nevertheless still pretty raw, material into an experienced practitioner that can justify charging the headline rates that most will aspire to will, in most cases, only start then.

So what advantage does all that training give them? Is there a foundation of ethics, client service and professionalism that somehow escapes non-solicitors? Professor Richard Moorhead, the newly appointed Director for Ethics and Law at UCL, in his inaugural lecture on 6 March 2014, concluded that the evidence in fact shows that lawyers’ belief that they provide better quality services than non-lawyers or are more ethical is “highly questionable”.

The introduction of entity regulation is a profound change. It is now the firm that is the focus of the regulators and it has the responsibility of ensuring compliance to the same standard by all of its staff, non-solicitors as well as qualified staff. And the management of the firm will no longer necessarily be drawn exclusively from the ranks of qualified solicitors.

So what does this all mean? From the point of view of a client, what matters most is that they receive the right quality of service, in the right time and for the right price. Is this more likely to be achieved by an ABS which uses sophisticated process and technology and highly trained and experienced (both in specific legal topics and in communication) non-qualified staff to deliver its services, or a traditional law firm operating in a traditional way? In most cases, it is the outcome and the manner of delivery that is really of importance and whether that delivery is in the hands of a qualified solicitor is, at best, of marginal importance.

What does this mean for the future of the profession and the market? Personally, I don’t see the term “solicitor” disappearing from use in favour of a more generic “lawyer”. Despite issues (Professor Moorhead also revealed that a recent survey carried out for Which? found that only 35% of people trust lawyers and 30% did not!) I believe that the term “solicitor” within a legal market context still has a deserved cachet and can, so long as standards are maintained, be seen as a mark of excellence and professionalism. The major difference is that it will be the firms themselves on which the qualities of being a solicitor will be focused, rather than necessarily the individuals within them.

To be entitled to call yourself a firm of solicitors, at least one of the senior managers must be a solicitor as the COLP. Do you need any more than one? The academic background that currently underpins entry into the profession will be a pre-requisite for technical high-end work – true lawyering – but isn’t particularly appropriate for the substantial element of essentially process work that makes up the bulk of many firms’ work. That work may be more suited to non-qualified, but well trained, staff.

I do expect the model to change. Instead of firms consisting of a number of solicitors supported by purely administrative staff, I expect to see far more with a far smaller proportion of solicitors and a larger number of non-professionally qualified staff in front line delivery roles.

So, yes, solicitors will be staffed by individual solicitors, but often only a few. What this means for the huge numbers of qualified solicitors being pumped out by the educational establishments is another issue altogether.

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