It has become something of a truism that times are tough out there. As economic correspondents and business associations never tire of reminding us, for many wages are stagnant, work scare, business hard to come by. And family lawyers are certainly not immune to such pressures.
Recent figures paint a clear picture. According to the Law Society’s latest quarterly financial survey, the amount of family law work coming into small and medium sized firms remained largely static over the last six months of this year. Little has changed since the same period last year.
There was some good news for legal professional in the results: residential conveyancing work, for example, has apparently increased by a healthy 12 per cent, and commercial work is also up amongst the two and a half thousand law firms surveyed. Such results could indicate the first stirrings of a real economic recovery – I’d certainly like to think so anyway!
But what about family law? Why has this normally dynamic sector plateaued over the last year?
In a recent blog in the Law Society Gazette website, Catherine Baksi rightly notes the contrast between the results from the Law Society survey and those from a YouGov survey published to accompany the launch of divorce app Sorting Out Separation in November.
According to the latter 52 per cent of respondent found it hard to get help they needed when they separated, and 39 per cent did not seek any professional help after their separation. Of those, 25 per cent said could not find what they needed or felt embarrassed by the situation.
If there is substance behind the YouGov figures, they certainly suggest a lot of untapped potential for family law firms. Meanwhile, yet another survey suggests that Britain has become a nation of enthusiastic divorcers. New figures from EU statistical organisation Eurostat reveal that more Britons get divorced than people in any EU country beside Finland. We have an average divorce 2.8 per 1,000 people, compared to an EU average of 1.8 per 1,000. In Luxembourg, the figure is just 0.6 per 1,000 people, something like one fifth of the UK rate.
This dubious distinction certainly says something about the state of modern Britain. Some, such as the Marriage Foundation, will no doubt see such figures as a sign of social decay.
So why aren’t family lawyers across the country booming? Is it, as Catherine Baksi wonders, a relatively simple case of them not doing enough to sell themselves?
I am very sceptical of the government’s claims that the people do not know where to turn if their marriage ends. Most people are sensible and know that in a difficult and disorientating situation like divorce, you need professional help. You need a solicitor.
But there is often one simple and crucial difference between conveyancing, commercial legal work, to take two examples, and family law: money. Companies and corporations usually have the money to pay for the legal assistance they need. People buying and selling homes have access to cash via sales and mortgages.
But divorce, separation, children’s issues – these are all intensely personal and revolve around people’s own, accessible assets. In a sluggish economy people just don’t have as much to spend on professional legal help as they once did. And with the looming end of Legal Aid, fewer and fewer people will have anything at all.