Not so starry-eyed over firms' figures

Looking at the Law Society's feast of figures in the annual statistical report is an exercise akin to star gazing. We are seeing things as they were some time ago – some considerable time ago when considering the fee earnings of firms.

Totted up from indemnity fund returns, the latest 1992-3 figures relate to firms' financial years ending any time in the 18 months up to the end of September 1993. Crazy, it may be, but it's the best we're going to get.

Luckily, the figures confirm common sense: 1992-93 was a year of minimal growth of 3.3 per cent, with retail inflation at 3.6 per cent and solicitors employed numbers growing by 3.4 per cent; there was a fall in profits for many.

But assuming that the pattern of reporting is similar each year, the year-on-year comparisons should stack up. Some of the most significant ratios must be for the country's top 106 firms with 26 or more partners controlling u2.7bn in fees. While they had an average u25m in gross fees, the median figure was u13.7m, the lower quartile figure was u8.9m and the upper quartile fee figure was u25.7m. The biggest firms were clearly pulling up the average and masking wide differences at that top level of the profession.

While similar differences are apparent between the gross fee levels in other bandings, they are not so wide. But they do drive home that in each band there is an underclass of firms, the lower quartile, which may be struggling with lesser returns. A quarter of sole practitioners had fees of u43,000, yet it is a sector that has grown inexorably.

The society asks whether there will be enough demand for solicitors' services to absorb the numbers coming on stream – with over 70,000 expected (64,000 currently) to have practising certificates by 1997? The answer is simple. Unless the gross fees cake grows sufficiently, they can only be accommodated by some of the profession getting less.