In a landmark for the legal industry that nevertheless raises some uncomfortable truths, the number of working female solicitors in England and Wales has exceeded men for the first time according to new figures.
Reflecting the decades-long influx of junior women to the profession, the total number of women lawyers in the world’s second largest legal market is now 50.1% of the UK’s 139,624 practising certificate (PC) holders, and 48% of the 93,155 solicitors in private practice.
The recently-released figures, contained in the Law Society’s Annual Statistics Report for 2017, show women made up a significant majority of new admissions in 2016/17, at 61.6%. In total there are now 69,995 female PC-holders.
Despite this progress at the junior end, the rate of female partnership is still sluggish, improving 2% from last year’s 8,105 to 8,241, compared to 19,884 male equivalents. The number of male partners, however, marginally dipped over the 12-month period, falling 0.7%.
While the figures, which run annually until 31 July 2017, will be taken as evidence of the profession’s success in attracting large numbers of women, lack of progress in gender equality at senior roles raises awkward questions for the industry.
While there were 139,624 solicitors with PCs as of July 2017, a 3% increase annually, the rate of trainee solicitor registrations marginally dropped by 0.2% to 5,719. Women currently make up a sizeable majority of trainee registrations at 62.3%.
The figures also underline the continued expansion of in-house ranks which has been a notable feature of the UK legal market for two decades. The number of PC holders working in-house increased by 3.2%, again outpacing overall increases in the profession. Since 2002, the number of lawyers working in commerce and industry has nearly trebled in England and Wales.
There were 18,766 solicitors working in commerce and industry as of last July, a 3.5% rise on the 18,137 recorded the previous year. The proportion of PC holders working in-house edged up marginally to 22.2%, though this figure includes many in the public sector and charitable organisations.
In terms of racial diversity, PC holders from BAME groups made up 17% of the total, a substantial improvement on the 7% figure from 2000. However, since 69% of newly-admitted solicitors did not provide their ethnic origin to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), such data is largely incomplete.
Other findings from the report included a sharp increase in the number of alternative business structures (ABS) in operation. There are currently 600 active ABSs, an increase of 125 on the previous year, and 6% of the total 9,488 active private practice firms.
The failure of law firms to establish gender parity in their partnership ranks has been put under intense scrutiny this week, with Allen & Overy (A&O) criticised by the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy select committee over its refusal to publish partner gender pay figures.