The survey of solicitors earlier this year generated significant participation from members of the profession, as well as interest and comment from a wider audience.
It also provided a very useful insight into how the profession sees itself in 2023 and into the future. The results of the survey indicate lots of positives and optimism and reveal a vibrant profession aware of the many opportunities, as well as a clear view of the challenges that lie ahead. It is one of the key tools we are using to develop the strategy for what the Law Society will prioritise over the next five years.
In 2023, the profession is not a straightforward mix of large and small firms, but a mosaic of different types of organisations and practices. Our members come from different backgrounds and are evolving to match the needs of a modern, sophisticated economy and society.
On many levels, there is positive news for the profession. The number of solicitors has grown from 4,500 just 25 years ago to almost 12,000 now – and the demand for solicitors and those interested in a legal career continues to grow, as evidenced by having 1,600 trainees currently in the Law Society’s system.
Legal services role
Legal services in Ireland are an integral part of our modern and internationally focused economy. Many of our members help service almost all elements of that dynamic, complex, and ever-changing environment. There has also been substantial growth in the in-house solicitor sector (in 2022, this comprised over 20% of the profession) and in the number of specialist small firms offering boutique, targeted services.
Overall, the recent survey of members indicates that many elements of the profession are thriving – especially in major urban areas – but it raises real concerns about the future of smaller practices in other parts of the country. Community-based services, smaller, and sole- partner-operated firms outside Dublin are coming under pressure. There is little doubt that legal services will thrive in Ireland, but the question is whether they will thrive in every community across Ireland?
Our strategy consultation continues to yield valuable insights from members, trainees, staff, and external stakeholders regarding the areas where the Law Society should focus its efforts over the next five years. It is obvious that there are increasing challenges as well as opportunities for the profession, and there are continuous changes to the way legal services are provided. With this in mind, the Law Society is also evolving to embrace the opportunities and help mitigate the challenges that lie ahead for the solicitors’ profession.
New entrants to the market, the increase in prospects for in-house solicitors, and the expanding role of the public sector in providing training contracts are all to be welcomed. Despite this, legal practice will continue to change over the next five years. Cybercrime and cybersecurity were identified as the standout challenges in the survey results, which should come as no surprise. Hybrid working and digital technology are seen as the top opportunities, which highlights how the profession has embraced technology.
The business environment for solicitors, however, is becoming ever-more competitive and pressurised, with increased client expectations. The survey results capture data regarding the impact on personal and professional wellbeing. More than one in four respondents described wellbeing and mental health as an ‘extremely challenging’ issue. This makes the landmark expansion of Law Society Psychological Services to members and trainees even more important. It is encouraging that the Law Society of Ireland is recognised as the leader in this area by our counterparts in other jurisdictions, including the International Bar Association.
Law Society Psychological Services are available to everyone – from those starting out on their qualification journey, to those who have reached the highest leadership levels. Our team of psychotherapists, organisational psychologists, and other skilful and creative professionals focus the service on psychological wellness, dignity and respect, and the ‘high-impact professional’. The Law Society’s goals for this ambitious service are to deliver psychological services across the legal life-cycle, cultivate an inclusive and healthy work environment for all, and create a profession of high-performing and self-aware lawyers. I encourage each of you to engage with the team for support.
Justice and law reform
Over the past year, you will have heard me speak about my ambition to make the Law Society a centre for justice and law reform. This is founded on the fact that the legal profession works, as it must, in the public interest. As such, the Law Society must call out access-to-justice issues that affect the public’s ability to have their rights vindicated.
The Law Society’s policy work aims to influence the justice system and shape law reform in the public interest. We will continue to do this through evidence based research, conferences on priority access-to-justice issues, and engagement with Government, policymakers, and civil society and justice-sector stakeholders.
Our Family Law Conference in July 2023 marked the first in a series of policy and law-reform conferences on priority access-to-justice issues. The conference considered the proposed legislation to reform Ireland’s family law and justice system, the Family Courts Bill (including the development of specialist family courts), and the lessons learned from international best practice. The recent establishment of our Environmental and Planning Law Committee highlights the Law Society’s commitment to strengthening environmental protection and advancing reforms to planning legislation.
The Law Society regularly provides submissions in response to public consultations on law reform and access to justice issues. Working with our specialist committees, 17 submissions were prepared in the year under review. Law Society representatives have also appeared before various Oireachtas committees to discuss issues relevant to the legal profession. I would like to thank our many committees for giving their time and expertise so generously this past year.
Regulatory demands on solicitors are also growing and evolving with the times. The new Solicitors Accounts Regulations came into operation on 1 July 2023. This change to the financial regulation environment was considered necessary to increase protection for client monies and to take account of the changed environment in which solicitors now operate, the more recent changes to legislation, and the Law Society’s experience of dealing with cases where the existing regulations are inadequate or not sufficiently clear. The Law Society’s Guidance and Ethics Committee published the fourth edition of the Solicitor’s Guide to Professional Conduct in September 2022. This is a valuable resource tool for solicitors in practice, and outlines the Law Society’s policy on best practice on conduct and ethics. My thanks to everyone involved in its development.
Healthy training market
With admissions to the Law Society at a 15-year high, we are seeing clear signs of a healthy training market. Law Society education continues to evolve to meet the changing demands of business and society. The new used Professional Practice Course (PPC) commenced on 6 September 2022, with 472 new trainees starting their qualification journey at the Law Society. This innovative new course marks continued rapid progress to implement the recommendations of the Law Society’s Peart Commission Report and the strategic drive to deliver world-class legal education.
The legal profession must reflect the diversity of modern Irish society. The PPC Hybrid is showing clear indicators of improving diversity and inclusion in the profession. This course makes greater use of best practice in online learning, doing away with the need to relocate to Dublin for an extended period. Approximately 73% of trainees on the PPC Hybrid 2022 are female, and approximately 47% are above the age of 30. In contrast, 95% of trainees on the non-hybrid PPC are aged 30 or under, and 84% are based in a training firm located in Dublin.
We are committed to working in the public interest. Part of this work is encouraging young people to engage with the law and their rights, and encouraging an interest in a legal career. A record 13,800 students from 154 schools nationwide participated in our new ‘TY Law Module’ – a flexible online programme covering climate justice, criminal law, employment law, human-rights law, and more.
Innovative member services
Our member services are also growing. The library launched a new area of service for members with its ‘Law Society Subject Guides’. These guides are a one-stop shop for guidance, precedents, and practice notes on single areas of law. Five subject guides have been released to date, focusing on conveyancing, employment, probate, family, and environmental law.
Blackhall Place is a special building, and we aim to increase access to its vast facilities among stakeholders. To give you an idea of the scale of events hosted in the Law Society, over the past year, our facilities management team delivered the logistics on 1,097 events, supporting more than 350,000 visitors.
It has been a strong year for the solicitors’ profession and the Law Society. Of course, there is more work to do. Survey respondents believe that the Law Society is making a positive impact, but there are areas in which we can do more, and do better. The profession, and the environment in which we all operate, is evolving rapidly, and it is no surprise that solicitors expect the Law Society to evolve as well. I urge you to keep engaging with our strategy development consultation to ensure that your views on the future of the Law Society are shared.
T P Kennedy (director of education), Gillian Cregan (director of finance and administration), Mark Garrett (director general), Teri Kelly (director of representation and member services), Niall Connors (director of regulation), and Barbara Carroll (director of human resources)