The latest stats on Australia’s legal profession begs the question of whether our lawyers prefer to be lone wolves or are keen to break free of traditional structures and operate more creatively, writes Travis Schultz.
Female legal practitioners numerically dominate the legal profession in Australia, according to the 2020 National Profile of Solicitors. Not surprising given the significantly higher number of females enrolling in bachelor of law degrees over the last decade.
What is surprising, however, is that the recent data reveals that the vast majority of legal practitioners work in sole practices. Across Australia, 82 per cent of practitioners are either sole practitioners or work in law practices with one principal. That statistic is even more startling in Victoria where 87 per cent of practitioners work in solo practices, closely followed by South Australia that has 86 per cent of its lawyers operating as “one-man bands”.
For those of us practising in Queensland, the data tells us that 76 per cent of us work in practices with only one principal practising certificate.
What is this telling us? One must wonder whether lawyers prefer to be lone wolves rather than hunt in packs. Or is the shift a reflection of our entrepreneurial world, with lawyers wanting to operate creatively and without the constraints of big firm policies and processes?
When I was a first-year law student, (bright-eyed and bushy-tailed), I envisaged that my career would reach its peak working in a large law firm with many other ambitious, hard-working and talented legal professionals. Perhaps I had watched too many L.A. Law episodes, (and later Ally McBeal)?! However, I firmly believed that any sensible career aspiration had to include working in the biggest top-tier law firms. Bigger was definitely perceived to be better.
Over the last decade, figures show a 45 per cent increase in the total number of legal practitioners in Australia with the 2020 report citing a total of 83,636 lawyers. State-by-state, it was revealed that NSW boasts 35,718 lawyers; Victoria 21,118 and Queensland 13,043 – a significant 45 per cent increase overall over the last decade.
Whilst the ACT led the way with a 32 per cent increase in law practices (from 231 to 305), Victoria reported a 17 per cent decrease, in contrast to Queensland’s 17 per cent increase. The Queensland numbers are particularly significant because Queensland now has 1,959 sole practices – an increase of 182 on the 2018 numbers.
If this trend continues, imagine the fractured state of the Queensland market by the time of the next state of the profession report in two years’ time! What will be the status of the BigLaw firms? Will they dissipate and dwindle in size as the young cohort exercises their entrepreneurial muscles?
Back to the question… why is it that there has been such a proliferation of micro-practices? Is it that the profession now perceives that we can offer better value to our clients in an expense-controlled sole practice?
Or, is it that we feel that a small practice allows better work/life synchronisation and is more intimate, enabling closer connections with our stakeholders? Perhaps, as a group, we no longer believe that only the top-tier can boast rock-star lawyers. Does a digital world enable small practices to have just as many professional development opportunities as the globals? Is bigger no longer viewed as necessarily being better?
A staggering 60 per cent of the current cohort of lawyers are aged between 25 and 44. Could it be that this generation of lawyers has entirely different aspirations to those of lawyers graduating 20 to 30 years ago? Is it conceivable that they are more confident in their own abilities and don’t feel compelled to ride on the backs of the kudos of the big firms?
Is the shift to solo practices values-driven or simply a function of there being fewer opportunities in the top-tier firms?
Dare we acknowledge that the legal profession is fragmenting and that we are a bunch of loners; maverick-like in our approach to professional practice and happy to row our own boats?
And, will the day come when lawyers operate their practices from a home office and meet their clients with a cuppa and some home-made scones?
More questions than answers I know, however I’d be interested to hear the thoughts of my 83,635 colleagues!
Travis Schultz is the managing partner of Travis Schultz & Partners.