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Boom or bust? What’s really going on in the new world of law

26 September 2011 

Make no mistake – the world of law is changing faster than ever before. Lawyers are finding new ways to give legal advice. Wood panelled offices and gloomy receptions behind brass plated doors are out. New law firms are being set up by supermarkets. Virtual law firms are basing themselves in out-of-town warehouses. Legal entrepreneurs are rebranding law-firms (Quality Solicitors for examples) and opening brightly lit glass fronted shops in big shopping malls. Online do-it-yourself law documents, no appointment legal advice while you wait, up-front tiered pricing  - these are just the tip of the iceberg of what many think will be an avalanche of ideas and changes to the way legal advice is sold in the next few years.

And it really is a global phenomenon with new markets opening up for English law firms in places like Brazil, Russia, India and China as banks relocate to the new superpowers of the world economy.

As a result the legal sector is booming.1

This might come as a bit of a surprise to you given the doom and gloom of the recession. But the reality is that the legal sector in the UK is now estimated to be worth in the region of £25 billion per year. The government estimates that around 250,000 people in the UK currently work in jobs which have a significant legal element to them; caseworkers, housing advisors, contracts managers, HR professionals, company secretaries. And the prediction is that the sector will continue to grow.

True - like every other sector of the economy the legal sector has been affected by the economic crisis of the last 3 years. The credit crunch, recession and slow growth have all had an impact on the bottom line. But the picture is very mixed. Some areas of law have seen dramatic decline – commercial real estate work, for example, – the work related to buying and selling commercial developments like hotels or housing estates - dried up almost overnight in some places as developers, unable to get the finance they needed, downed tools and closed up shop. Banking and finance work took a nosedive as banks stopped doing business with each other. Public sector legal work got harder to come by as more of it was done in-house.

And at the start of the recession, some law firms used the downturn as an opportunity to carry out fundamental structural reform to change the way they worked, axing whole departments, getting rid of unproductive partners or applying across the board staff cuts of up to 10%. In a few cases entire law firms simply collapsed, Halliwells in the North West being the most notable.

But other sectors have taken off  –  areas like employment law, as employers looking to cut their wage bills to survive have consulted lawyers to find out the most efficient legal way to do this. Insolvency has boomed as businesses struggle to stay afloat. Niche areas like insurance law and shipping law remain strong.  2 And as many banks and financial institutions move their operations to the Far East, law firms have followed enabling them to cash in on the demand for advice on English law – the legal language of international business - in countries like China.

This means there are undoubtedly plenty of jobs in law to go around. Law firms in England and Wales are still recruiting between 4.5 and 5000 trainees solicitors a year. And every year around about 500 new barristers take up tenancies with barristers chambers.

On top of that there has been rapid growth in the numbers of paralegals over the last few years. Paralegals are a bit like paramedics. Highly skilled, often highly trained people who carry out the bulk of work on a legal case, handing it over to a more qualified solicitor or barrister only when specialist legal input is needed. Nobody knows exactly how many paralegals there are (one survey puts the figure at 60,000) but it is estimated that over 6000 paralegal law firms have emerged in the last 10 years. 3 When the law changes in October to allow alterations to the way law firms are owned – paving the way for companies like Saga, the AA and the Co-op to enter the legal market – that number is expected to increase dramatically.

A word of warning though…whilst some paralegal opportunities are open to people who have never studied the law before many companies and law firms want their paralegal staff to have done the LPC before they will consider taking them on.

So whether your ambition is to stand before the Supreme Court presenting the case for the release of a wrongly convicted citizen, or to be part of an international multi-function commercial team helping a major corporation to nail a deal, or to set up your own web-based law firm that uses new technology to offer customers massively reduced cost legal advice, the opportunity is there for the taking.

Find out more:

Useful information about a career in law on the Law Society website 

For more information on Careers as a barrister visit the Bar Council website

To find out about the most recent changes in the legal sector try following @NeilRose of LegalFutures on twitter or take a look at his website - Legal Futures





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