Yesterday I came across a headline in a well-known journal for solicitors which proclaimed that there are a thousand fewer private practice law firms in England and Wales than there were five years ago. The headline emanates from an annual statistics report by the Law Society setting out trends within the profession for 2015.
At the time of writing this I have not seen the full report as it does not seem to be available online – just a brief executive summary attached to a Law Society press release (the full report appears to only be available on application). No matter, the press release tells me a little more than the summary.
Firstly, what are the actual figures? Well, we are told that the number of private practice firms operating in England and Wales fell to 9,403 in 2015, which is just over 1,000 fewer firms than existed at a peak five years ago. Now, that seems to me to be a pretty significant drop in such a short period of time – what can be behind it?
Unfortunately, what little I’ve read about the statistics gives no answer to that question. There is, however, a clue in a quotation from Law Society chief executive Catherine Dixon contained within the press release. After commenting upon the growth in number of commercial organisations employing solicitors also shown in the statistics, she continued:
“However, we know that in some areas, such as publicly-funded legal advice, recruitment is far more challenging.”
It does not take much imagination to see that the closure of legal aid firms must be a significant, if not the most significant, factor in the reduction in the number of firms. The government’s continued assault upon legal aid, culminating in its wholesale abolition for private law family matters in April 2013, has borne fruit. Many firms that offered a legal aid service were small high street practices, the most vulnerable to a reduction in their business – they have either been taken over by other firms, or have simply gone under.
But does all of this matter? After all, the statistics show that there are actually more solicitors working in private practice than there were five years previously (proving what I have said here before about the legal aid cuts: it is the public who suffer – lawyers will find work elsewhere). Surely, therefore, leaving aside the lack of legal aid lawyers, the public is just as well served in terms of finding a solicitor as ever?
Well, no. Fewer firms means lack of coverage and less choice.
It’s difficult to comment upon lack of coverage, as larger firms may have more branch offices, and I have not seen any statistics for the number of law firm offices across the country. However, obviously there may be a greater chance that smaller towns and villages that previously were the home to small practices may now have none. Further, certain areas may lack the range of legal specialisations that they formerly had.
As to less choice, this of itself cannot be good, but it can also lead to particular problems. For example, in contentious matters such as family law there are obviously two parties. Accordingly, for them both to find representation in the same town there needs to be at least two firms doing that kind of work. It doesn’t matter how many branch offices a large firm has, they can’t act for both parties in a contentious matter. Therefore, where there is now only one firm doing that type of work in a particular town, the other party is forced to go elsewhere, which could be many miles away.
Now, I accept that all of the above may be a little premature. Hopefully, in most towns there is still a choice of law firms available. However, what if the trend for fewer firms continues at such a rate? There are hundreds of towns and cities in England and Wales. How many of them will have no law firm in 2020?
OK, I realise that there are other factors behind the drop in the number of firms, apart from the legal aid cuts. The 2008 financial crisis will have had a continued effect (also probably hitting the smallest firms hardest). However, government policy on legal aid must surely take a substantial part of the blame. The victims of that policy, as ever, are the public, and in particular those who are less able to travel, whether for economic or other reasons.
Image by John Eisenschenk via Flickr under a Creative Commons licence