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This is us: The Australian legal profession 2020 snapshot

Solicitors in Queensland continue to outperform the national average and other major jurisdictions for growth, according to the 2020 National Profile of Solicitors.

The report, which is being released today, reveals that Queensland remains a leader for growth in the national profession of solicitors. Over the period 2011 to 2020, Queensland solicitors grew by 54%, outstripping the national average by 9% and beating both New South Wales and Victoria.

Queensland now represents 16% of the nation’s 83,643 solicitors. Queensland also reported a strong growth of 17% in the number of law practices since the 2018 report to 2549.

“Despite the enormous recent challenges in our community, the Queensland legal profession has shown remarkable resilience,” Queensland Law Society CEO Rolf Moses said.

“Even within the restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen the industry’s gross income continue to grow over the last year.

“This underlines the critical role of Queensland solicitors in the community and in our business sector, and it is heartening to see the significant growth in the number of both firms and practitioners continuing.”

Within the Queensland profession, gender continues to be one of the major drivers of change – in 2020, 52% of all Queensland solicitors were female. But the gender breakdown of solicitors has changed rapidly in Queensland, with many more female graduates entering the profession and rising through the profession.

Since 2011 the ranks of female solicitors have grown by a staggering 80%, compared to a modest 33% growth in the numbers of male solicitors over the same period. Figures in the report show that female solicitors also outnumber their male counterparts in Queensland in all age brackets up to 44 years, with males in the majority between 45 and 75 years old.

The report also identifies that female practitioners are attracted to other forms of legal practice than law firms. In Queensland, there are more male solicitors than female in private practice law firms, while corporate legal, government legal and community legal practice types are strongly female.

There are two and half times more female solicitors than male solicitors in government legal practice.

The report indicates that law firms need to do more to attract and retain their female solicitors or risk losing them to new growth areas. National figures indicate that while the number of solicitors in private practice law firms have grown by 30% since 2011, this is eclipsed by 51% growth in the ranks of government solicitors and the staggering 82% growth in the number of corporate solicitors over the period.

On a national level, the report shows that there are 83,643 solicitors practising in Australia, an increase of 26,066 solicitors since 2011.

The growth in the profession between 2011 and 2020 was observed across all states and territories.

In 2011, when the first National Profile was published, women accounted for 46% of the nation’s 57,577 solicitors. Women now make up 53% of all solicitors in Australia and, for the first time, female solicitors outnumber male solicitors in all states and territories.

Over the past nine years, the growth of female solicitors (+67%) has been higher than that of male solicitors (+26%), further indicating that more women are continuing to enter the profession.

The Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory have a particularly high representation of female solicitors (with 61% and 60% respectively).

Female solicitors comprise the majority of solicitors employed in the community legal (71%), government legal (68%) and corporate legal sectors (60%). Conversely, females represented just under half of solicitors working in private practice (48%).

The report found that the largest proportion of solicitors were registered in New South Wales (43%), followed by Victoria (25%) and Queensland (16%).

And while the majority of Australian solicitors continued to work in private practice (67%), the most growth in the past nine years was in the corporate legal (+82%) and government legal (+88%) sectors.

Overall key trends revealed in the 2020 National Profile of Solicitors included:

Size of the profession

  • At the national level, there has been a steady growth in the profession over time with the total number of practising solicitors in Australia increasing by +45% since 2011.
  • When broken down by state and territory, the distribution of solicitors across Australia is consistent across reporting years (2011, 2014, 2016, 2018 and 2020).
  • The national growth rate has fluctuated over time, from +15% between 2011 and 2014, to +8% between 2014 and 2016, +8% between 2016 and 2018 and +9% between 2018 and 2020.

Private law practices

  • As at October 2020, there were 16,393 private law practices in Australia, down from 16,435 in 2018.
  • Most were sole practices or law practices with one principal (82%), followed by law practices with two to four principals (10%).
  • In 2020, large law practices with 40+ principals comprised less than 1.0% of all private law practices but 11% of private practitioners were working in those large law practices.

Practice sector

  • In 2020, the majority of solicitors in Australia were working in private practice (67%). This was consistent across all jurisdictions with the exception of the Australian Capital Territory in which there was a larger proportion of solicitors working in the government legal sector (49%).
  • Since 2011, all practice sectors have experienced growth, with the government legal sector experiencing the strongest growth (+88%), followed by the corporate legal sector (+82%) and private practice (+30%).

Age

  • Since 2014, there has been a large increase in solicitors aged 65 years and older (+59%); however, these solicitors comprised only 7% of the total number of solicitors in 2020.
  • The mean age of Australian solicitors (42 years) has remained relatively consistent over the past nine years, due to the growth in the number of younger solicitors entering the profession.
  • Almost half of all solicitors were aged between 25 to 39 years (48%). Solicitors in the Northern Territory and Australian Capital Territory were slightly younger than those in other jurisdictions, with an average age of 40 years. Solicitors in New South Wales and South Australia were slightly older, with an average age of 43 years.
  • Overall, female solicitors were younger on average, with a mean age of 39 years, compared to 46 years for male solicitors.

Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander status

  • In 2020, 632 solicitors identified as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait islander, representing 0.8% of all solicitors in Australia. Since 2014, this trend has remained relatively stable.
  • The highest proportions of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander solicitors were in the Northern Territory (2.0%) and New South Wales (1.1%).

The 2020 National Profile of Solicitors in Australia was prepared by Urbis, which was commissioned by the Law Society of NSW on behalf of the Conference of Law Societies to prepare a national demographic profile. This is the fifth National Profile of Solicitors in Australia and follows previous reports published in 2011, 2014, 2016 and 2018. It comprises a demographic breakdown of solicitors based on data provided by Queensland Law Society, the Law Society of New South Wales, the Law Society of South Australia, the ACT Law Society, Law Society Northern Territory, the Victorian Legal Services Board and Commissioner, the Legal Practice Board of Western Australia and the Law Society of Tasmania.

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