Widening fees gulf divides firms

THE RICH are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer among law firms, latest figures reveal.

But Law Society analysts rule out pessimistic predictions which claim that large numbers of firms will soon go under.

Instead, forecasts suggest that the profession will continue to grow, although profits will be cut back and some firms will only just “hang-on”.

The society's 1994 annual statistical report reveals a huge gulf between the top earning firms and those struggling at the bottom – particularly for the smaller practices.

The disparity in gross fees for the top 25 per cent of sole practitioners compared to the bottom 25 per cent is more than u100,000. Average turnover for the top 25 per cent is u144,000, with the bottom 25 per cent billing for just u43,000.

Fee income has continued to grow for the profession as a whole, but at the modest rate of 3.3 per cent. The u6,426 million total figure does not take into account the increase in practising solicitors and an inflation rate of 3.6 per cent.

The report concludes: “It is inevitable that many firms will have suffered a fall in profits in 1992-93.”

The society's secretary-general, John Hayes, says that this year's report reveals evidence of “stronger than expected performance of firms in the recession”.

But the report also predicts that the number of solicitors with practising certificates will continue to grow and may pass the 70,000 mark in 1996-97.

The society's analysts contradict the findings of a report by Coopers & Lybrand and The Lawyer, published in August, in which Coopers' Brian Woods-Scawen said time was running out for large numbers of firms.

The picture remains bleak for trainee lawyers looking for work and the situation is unlikely to improve despite a slight rise in the number of article places available.

The gap between the demand for places and the number of traineeships being offered is only likely to close when students realise how difficult it is to find work as a lawyer, the report says.

It also reveals there are now more women solicitors than men under the age of 30 and the number of women in the profession is now three times higher than it was a decade ago.

The number of solicitors from ethnic minorities, at 3.4 per cent, remains below average, but the situation is set to improve with increasing numbers being admitted.