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Survey of Law Society profession

12 Jul 2023 / Law Society Print

Helicopter view

Director general Mark Garrett shares his insights on some of the findings emerging from the Law Society’s recent survey of the profession. Mark McDermott and Angela Flanagan report.

How will the Law Society and the solicitors’ profession evolve in the next five years? Law Society director general Mark Garrett is slow to be drawn on this question.

“The first thing that jumped out at me from the Law Society’s recent survey of solicitors and trainees was the level of optimism within the profession,” he says. “Another key point is that solicitors clearly see a wide range of opportunities, as well as challenges, in how they will practise law over the next five years.”

The results of the survey are based on the responses from 2,264 solicitors and trainees, who represent the full cross-section of the profession, constituting a rate of response of about 12%. It’s a substantial response rate, reflecting the views of members practising in firms ranging from sole practitioners to those with over 200 solicitors, and from in-house lawyers from the public and private sectors, to those working in a wide variety of practice areas.

The results offer a snapshot of solicitors’ work in terms of both size of practice and their work profiles.

The survey provides a valuable insight and better understanding of the work, pressures, and possibilities that solicitors are facing today – and the trends they expect will impact on their work in the coming years.

Key focus

“The key focus, from my point of view, is that this is a really good picture of how the profession sees itself,” Garrett says. “And that’s something we have to reflect on. Rather than come to any conclusions about how the Law Society will evolve, the survey confirms that there are many solicitors, many law firms already preparing for the future.

“They’re very well aware of the headwinds and tailwinds, the positives, the negatives, the opportunities, and challenges,” he adds. “We have to absorb that, along with the other parts of the strategic process, which include talking to external stakeholders outside of the profession, evaluating how the world around the profession is operating – including the political, economic and legal environments. We will bring all of that together to provide us with a comprehensive picture about how to help the profession navigate the challenges and opportunities. This is only the start of the process. We haven’t come to any conclusions – nor should we at this stage.”

The director general is quick to point out that the survey is just the first of a four-stage strategic process: “The first phase is the ‘discovery and research’ phase, where we are gathering all of the information from different stakeholders. The second phase is ‘purpose’ – so knowing all we know from the discovery phase, we will then look at the Law Society’s purpose, bearing in mind the need to balance the interests of our members and the public interest that we serve. The third phase is ‘devising the strategy’. Once we’ve determined our purpose, the strategy will be put in place to achieve it. The final phase will be ‘implementation’, where we will install an implementation plan to make sure that we achieve our strategy.

“By jumping to the conclusions now, we would be missing the opportunity to absorb the information that the profession and other key stakeholders are giving us.

“It’s too tempting, almost, to grab the opportunity to say what we must do. I would caution every-body not to jump to conclusions at this stage, other than to say that people are relatively optimistic about the future. They’re giving a sense that there is more likely to be growth than decline in most cases.

“The profession has given us an insight to what they’re currently dealing with, what’s on their desks, from a professional, business, and personal perspective. The personal issues are around wellbeing, bullying, harassment, sexual harassment – all issues that all need to be addressed and looked at,” he says.

Key message

Mark Garrett says that he has been fascinated by the responses to questions about the current and likely future workplace – the challenges, opportunities, areas of growth and decline, as well as where the Society needs to focus its attention and resources.

“The key message I take from the survey is that, while the profession is optimistic for the future, solicitors are dealing with a range of changes and challenges in their practice. And as the practice of law evolves, solicitors are clear that they expect the Law Society to evolve also.

“There is no doubt that change is inevitable but, from my vantage point, there are significant interlinked legal, societal and market changes that will most directly have an impact on the legal profession. This survey confirms that this is a dynamic, resilient, forward-looking profession that is already aware of where the tailwinds and headwinds are, and many are already preparing for that.”

Facts and figures

The B&A survey was designed in three parts, focusing on the legal profession, the Law Society, and justice and law reform.

In terms of work, the key areas of practice for solicitors are conveyancing (44%), litigation (38%), civil litigation/personal injuries (32%), probate (31%), and commercial (28%) law.

As the graph below shows, respondents are positive about the future of the profession, with a 40% optimistic versus a 29% pessimistic view. The data show that there is a greater optimism among in-house, equity partners, trainees, and larger firms.

Optimism is lower among sole practitioners and partners, and practices of three or fewer solicitors.

Looking to the trajectory for growth or decline in the area of practice or work over the next five years, 52% of people are expecting growth (of which 22% expect to grow a lot), 30% are expecting to remain stable, while 15% are anticipating a deterioration.

This is a profession that operates in an Ireland that has a modern, open economy and society, and where the economy is the main influencer on the trend for the demand for legal services. While the economy continues to remain strong, an air of caution and hesitation is signalled by some in this survey, while others foresee, and are preparing for, continued growth.

Interestingly, almost one in three practitioners expect their work or area of practice to remain stable. This view is across the board – from sole practitioners to solicitors in firms of up to 100 solicitors.

Technology’s dominant role

The dominant role of technology in our lives is an evident thread throughout the survey results. When asked about challenges and opportunities, respondents acknowledged it to be among the top opportunities – and the top challenges.

Key areas of expected growth are artificial intelligence (AI), data protection, environmental and planning law, alternative dispute resolution, commercial law, and energy and infra-structure law. AI and data protection both topped the score at 23% each in terms of where growth is envisaged.

“The survey findings are very interesting and reveal a sophisticated view from the profession, which sees both sides of the ‘opportunities-and-challenges’ coin. The technology and cybersecurity issue is a classic example – clearly, it’s top of the list in terms of the obvious challenges it poses – but also in terms of the opportunities it presents. It’s the same with regulation,” Mark Garrett says.

The hybrid working environment, digital technology, protecting employers against cybercrime, and continued growth in the economy are seen as they key opportunities within the profession for the next five years.

A total of 43% of respondents see ‘significant’ oppor-tunity in hybrid-working, with 19% describing it as ‘very significant’.

Digital technology and the growing incidence of cybercrime are areas where the profession sees it can play a strong role.

However, even with this optimism and potential, the director general says that he is “under no illusion about the challenges that come with it also”.

Cybercrime and cyber-security are live issues on the minds of the vast majority (91%) of solicitors, with 43% of respondents stating it as an ‘extremely challenging’ issue, while 48% describe it as ‘challenging’.

While continued growth in the economy is an opportunity, it can be argued that it creates the recruitment and retention challenges cited by 82% of practitioners, of whom 34% say that recruitment and retention are ‘extremely challenging’.

Wellbeing and mental health

The business environment for solicitors is getting ever more competitive and pressurised, and expectations are rising. The survey results capture valuable and disturbing data about the impact on personal and professional wellbeing. More than one in four respondents described wellbeing and mental health as an ‘extremely challenging’ issue (27%), with just over one in every two respondents saying it was ‘challenging’ (51%). The data reveals that this is a more intense issue for those in larger firms.

“In addressing this issue, I wish to draw your attention to two ways in which the Law Society can support the mental health and wellbeing of solicitors and trainees,” says Garrett. “Firstly, ‘LegalMind’ is an independent, subsidised, confidential mental-health support for all solicitors.

“Secondly, and uniquely, all trainees are encouraged to engage in free time-concentrated therapy as part of their personal and professional development in the Law School. As employers, leaders, training solicitors and colleagues, I would ask you to share details of these resources within your organisation. The figures above don’t lie – we have an obligation to support the profession as a community.”

It is important to highlight, too, that over one-third of those surveyed highlight that ‘bullying, harassment or sexual harassment’ was a ‘significant’ (32%) or ‘very significant’ (6%) issue for them.

“That is an unacceptable level in any workplace,” the director general says, “and while the legal profession is not alone in dealing with these issues, it emphasises once again the need to continue to prioritise the recommendations of the Dignity Matters report published by the Law Society in 2021 to address these concerns.”

Services to the profession

Turning to the Law Society itself, solicitors have sent a clear message. “Many of the services offered by the Law Society are valued by the profession, especially the education and qualifications offered, the standards set by regulation, as well as information services such as the Law Society Gazette and Gazette.ie. But there are areas in which we can do more, and do better,” the director general says.

“When respondents were asked how much the Society needed to change to tackle the challenges the profession might face, 89% of you stated that ‘change is required’, 31% indicated ‘significant change’, and 19% selected ‘very significant change’. 

“I would like to thank all of the solicitors and trainees who took the time to participate in this survey,” Mark Garrett says. “I’d also like to emphasise that it will play a valuable part in the current strategy process that will shape the priorities for the Law Society over the next five years. The current strategy concludes at the end of 2023 and we are using this process to help develop a roadmap to navigate the challenges and opportunities the profession faces, as well as to fulfil our public-interest mandate.

“This survey is a significant piece of research, rich with data that requires reflection and consideration. Along with interviews with external stakeholders, submissions from bar associations and further desk research, it will help inform the development of the next Statement of Strategy for the Law Society.”

For further information on the survey results, please visit www.lawsociety.ie.  

Read and print a PDF of this article here.

Mark McDermott and Angela Flanagan
Mark McDermott is editor of the Law Society Gazette. Angela Flanagan is project manager and strategy advisor at the Law Society.