Law: Trainees face hard times: Roger Smith looks at the difficulties and challenges that lie in the year ahead for the legal profession

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Let us not get the problem out of proportion. Most lawyers will become richer in 1994. Nevertheless, a significant minority, particularly the young and inexperienced, will not, and the legal profession as a whole faces a difficult year.

The mid-1990s are the more traumatic for aspirant lawyers because of the contrast with the 1980s, when lawyers were on a roll. The decade ended with 20,000 more solicitors and 1,000 more barristers than it began with. The profession identified a 'recruitment crisis' and wanted more people.

Fuelled by the expansion in higher education, it got them. At the last published count, there were 61,329 practising solicitors and 7,735 barristers. Thus, 1994 begins with 4,000 more solicitors and 1,200 more barristers than were practising in 1990.

Until recently, this level of increase was supported by a corresponding rise in turnover. Annual increases in solicitors' overall income have consistently exceeded inflation and total earnings were a healthy pounds 6.2bn in the last year for which figures are available, 1991/92. Average earnings per solicitor have also outstripped inflation.

Figures for the Bar are harder to obtain but one of its committees issued a report giving information relating to 1989, when the Bar earned a total of pounds 418m. The report noted with concern that although overall earnings had risen during the 1980s, growing numbers of barristers were, even then, eating into incomes so that 'fees per barrister have been roughly static in real terms'.

In retrospect, this was the writing on the wall. Lawyers were so successful in the 1980s, and other employment prospects are now so dire, that the profession is attracting an oversupply of new recruits. This year, around 7,000 students will complete their vocational training and seek places as trainee solicitors or barristers.

With vacancies for trainees running at around 3,500 in solicitors firms, many of the 6,000 hoping to be solicitors will be disappointed. Prospective barristers may find it easier to obtain pupillage: their problems will really begin when they look for work. The Bar Council appears to have accepted the inevitable, recently recognising in a report on the young Bar that 'it is likely that the Bar will decline in size'. A reduction in numbers might not be too serious for the Bar, which has grown by 20 per cent in four years. A number of factors, however, suggest that change may be more fundamental.

The Bar is particularly vulnerable because it is dependent for almost two-fifths of its total income from legal aid and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). Its legal aid monopoly in the Crown Court will soon be broken by solicitors in private practice.

The CPS, although excluded from the Crown Court at present, is stepping up its efforts to undertake more magistrates' courts advocacy in-house. In 1990, the CPS farmed out 40 per cent of its work: it plans to reduce this to 10 per cent by 1995. A further threat comes from increasing numbers of freelance solicitor advocates.

Chambers of such advocates have now been established in towns such as Peterborough and have a number of market advantages over young barristers. Indeed, they are encouraged by a legal aid anomaly which pays a solicitor more than a barrister. However, they also find favour because they are generally more experienced; know more precisely what another solicitor wants and can handle the case from the file without a separate brief. Finally, as the young Bar report itself admits, they tend not to be so 'irritatingly snotty'.

Over time, such advocates will become largely indistinguishable from barristers as specialist court advocates taking work on referral. It would then be time for them to merge under one organisation and one code of conduct.

This would accelerate the likelihood of a new career path. A young lawyer would be much more likely to begin as what is now a solicitor, build up expertise and contacts and then transfer to what is now the Bar. Direct entry would become much rarer.

Solicitors will not escape change. At the moment, practices vary considerably in size, income and ethos. The majority of solicitors' firms remain tiny: a minority are enormous. Some 6,500 of the 8,000 firms of any reasonable size have fewer than four partners: around 3,000 are sole practitioners.

By contrast, 100 firms have more than 25 partners and employ a total of 11,000 solicitors. The sole practitioner firms grossed an average of pounds 115,000 during 1990/91. The top 100 firms hit an average of pounds 23m each: gross fees were pounds 474,000 per partner.

Apart from niche practices, several factors are going to make the smaller firms grow and become more specialised. Legal aid provides about 12 per cent of all solicitors' earnings: the Legal Aid Board wants roughly to halve the number of legal aid outlets, building larger and more specialised practices. Conveyancing still provides around a third of all solicitors' income: building societies are beginning to discriminate against dealing with sole practitioners.

In a tighter economic climate, lawyers will be driven to use cheaper labour. They will employ more paralegals. The existence of a pool of trained students unable to get training places to qualify as solictors will encourage this trend.

The Institute of Legal Executives has already argued that the greater reliance on paralegals justifies its members being given greater rights of audience in the courts. This, in turn, will lead to more pressure on solicitors' jobs, particularly those of the newly qualified. Further competition will arise if some advice work is transferred from legal aid solicitors to advice agencies, as the Lord Chancellor hopes.

1994 is, therefore, likely to bring significant change for these two branches of the legal profession. We could be about to see a major contraction and restructuring as in other areas of the economy. The consequences for young people wanting to be fully qualified lawyers will be depressing. As for the effect on clients, we will have to wait and see.

Roger Smith is director of the Legal Action Group

(Photograph omitted)