A Law Society survey of solicitors in the Republic has found that almost nine in ten trainees are in large urban areas such as Dublin and Cork.
The future of the country solicitor may be at risk, given that eight counties had just one trainee solicitor in 2022, three had none, and legal “deserts” are emerging across the State in terms of law and legal-aid services.
Large counties such as Tipperary, Mayo, Westmeath, Kilkenny, Carlow, Leitrim, Offaly and Laois have just one trainee, while Roscommon, Monaghan and Longford have none.
The Law Society has already responded to this situation with innovative and flexible routes to qualification as a solicitor.
The Law Society's Small Practice Traineeship Grant has been praised by trainee solicitors for enabling them to work and study in their own rural communities.
Likewise, the Law Society’s innovative Hybrid Professional Practice Course is proving particularly important for those who are most geographically distant from Blackhall Place.
A massive 82% of the 2022 trainee intake are with Dublin practices, and almost 90% are in Dublin and Cork combined.
Solicitors working in large firms and in-house in the private and public sector are more upbeat about the profession than sole practitioners and small-firm solicitors.
Of 12,000 solicitors with practising certs, 2,264 responded to a Law Society-commissioned Behaviour & Attitudes survey, to inform its strategic review for the next five years.
Women made up 54% of respondents, while the median age was 46. Of the respondents,40% were under 43, and 58% were based in Dublin.
Some 41% were optimistic about the profession’s future, while 29% were more pessimistic and 31% were neutral.
Just over one in five expected their own area of work or business to grow a lot in the next five years, 30% expected some growth, a similar number expected no change and 15% expected less work.
Bigger firms of over 100 solicitors were more optimistic about growth than sole practitioners and small firms.
Law Society Director General, Mark Garrett told Irish Times reporter Mary Carolan that the survey reflected the massive changes in Ireland over the past 25 years, and pointed to the significant challenges of a justice and court system that was “under pressure and under-funded”.
However, the profession was growing, he said, and had ballooned from 4,500 solicitors 25 years ago to some 12,000 last year, with significant demand for legal services in a range of new areas, such as aviation law, technology and the new assisted decision-making process.
The Law Society now has a record 1,600 trainee solicitors, and a commercial-justice system promoted internationally as a destination for legal services.
“There is no doubt that legal services will thrive in Ireland; the question is will they thrive in every community in Ireland,” said Mark Garrett, adding that the profession was “a mosaic of different types of organisation, different practices and people coming from different backgrounds, which has evolved to match the needs of an evolving economy and society”.
Large firms with more than 100 solicitors service a “very significant” portion of the economy. The survey shows “massive” growth of in-house solicitors to 21% and of specialist small firms offering boutique, specialised services.
However, community-based services, and smaller and sole partner-operated firms outside of Dublin, face difficulties, he notes, in line with an emerging lack of other professionals, such as GPs.
Conveyancing, litigation, civil litigation/personal injuries, probate and commercial law were the top five areas of respondents’ work.
More than one in five, or 22 per cent, work in family law, one-fifth in employment law, 13% in data protection and 12% in medical negligence.
Just 10% are in criminal practice.
- Cybersecurity and cybercrime,
- Recruitment/talent retention,
- Regulations and compliance changes,
- Meeting the expectations of clients,
- Wellbeing and mental health, and
- Hybrid working, harassment, sexual harassment and bullying, and a growth in LLPs were lesser challenges.
Two out of three respondents want more legal digitalisation, while almost half want specialist courts for intellectual property, family law and planning law.
Reform of the family law, civil legal aid and criminal legal aid systems and judicial appointments was sought by one-third of respondents.
The DG said that the Law Society was developing a co-regulation model with the Legal Services Regulatory Authority (LSRA).
Clients dissatisfied with a solicitor’s work may complain to the LSRA, while financial complaint matters remain with the Law Society, since it holds a compensation fund funded directly by solicitors.
“As in any regulated profession, there will be occasions when people do not meet the standards expected of them, and there is a robust inspection and a significant process whereby people can indicate what is the true case and there is a compensation fund at the end of it,” Mark Garrett told The Irish Times.
In only a small number of cases, the Law Society will go to the High Court seeking to have a solicitor suspended or struck off, he adds.
This year marked the centenary of the first women solicitors in Ireland, he said, and the legal profession should reflect the society in which it operated.
The Law Society has programmes to promote greater diversity in the profession, including with transition-year students, he added.