There's nothing like a New Year hangover to trigger a spot of reflection on where the global legal profession is headed; but if that's a too depressing, there's also a man called RocknRoll to cheer us up
The New Year is a completely contrived and false landmark, but it’s as good an excuse as any for a spot of reflection.
What is the state of the global legal profession as the world ploughs into the second decade of the second millennium (with excuses to those who do not adhere to the Gregorian calendar)? On the basis of a straight-forward analysis of lawyer numbers in the two most muscular jurisdictions of the global legal world, the US and England, the answer would appear to be: pretty damn well, thanks very much.
Last year, there were more than 1.245 million licensed lawyers practising across the US – an almost negligible increase of some 20,000 over the previous year, but interestingly, a rise of more than 100,000 on the 2007 figure. In other words, the US legal profession has grown by more than 8 per cent during the worst economic downturn since Franklin D Roosevelt launched the New Deal.
And that growth has not been limited to the hyper-litigious US. The latest statistics available for England show that in 2011 there were some 122,000 practising solicitors in the jurisdiction – nearly a 4 per cent increase on 2010. The Law Society of England and Wales points out that over the last 30 years the solicitors’ profession has grown by more than 200 per cent at an average annual increase of 3.8 per cent. Even the English barristers’ profession – written off by some ever since solicitors were allowed to encroach on its advocacy patch more than two decades ago – has grown.
Outside of the two historically big players, emerging jurisdiction professions are also booming. Regardless of western views regarding the independence of Chinese lawyers, there is no disputing that their numbers and regional influence are rocketing.
So just as the overall population of the planet inexorably keeps multiplying, the global legal profession seems to have a propensity towards rabbit-like breeding. But just as the planet could be heading for a crash caused by over-population, so too the future might not be all that bright for traditional legal sector structures.
At the end of last week, England’s Solicitors Regulation Authority trumpeted that it had completed its first year of licensing alternative business structures. Understandably, the regulator skates over its teething problems with the applications, when many in the early queue complained that SRA processes were overly slow and bureaucratic. Instead, it highlights the numbers – nearly 390 applications, with 74 licences granted and another 19 nearly at green light stage.
Considering that only two years ago, most English legal profession traditionalists were highly dismissive of the ABA concept, predicting take-up would be negligible, the fact that nearly 100 businesses have been or will shortly be licensed, and another 300 have applied, puts paid to that scepticism. Indeed, if there were 400 licensed ABSs by the end of this year, that group would represent nearly 5 per cent of law firms in England.
Bar authorities in the US and Europe continue to fulminate over the ABS concept, with its provisions allowing licensed firms to accept non-lawyer owners and injections of external capital particularly causing palpitations. But it is difficult to imagine their lawyers being content to stand on the sidelines if ABSs prove successful. Indeed, there is already talk of some European firms considering ABS applications for their London offices.
The ABS phenomenon is just one factor militating to consign traditional legal practice to history. Technology, process and service outsourcing and increased client demands are also conspiring to ensure that the old certainties soon disappear. The Scottish lawyer-academic-cum-legal profession-futurist, Richard Susskind, has spent the best part of the last 10 years putting the wind up traditionalists by forecasting their imminent demise. His latest treatise, Tomorrow’s Lawyer – an introduction to your future effectively rehashes and updates his usual themes, but his core point is still sound. Legal practice is a business, and business, like sharks, must keep moving to survive.
It’s only rock ‘n’ roll
It would be negligent to let this blog pass without reference to the most bizarre of media law stories to hit the headlines over the new year. British Hollywood film darling Kate Winslet recently married a man called Ned RocknRoll. Obviously, we wish the couple congratulations and all the best (it’s her third marriage and his second).
Not long after the nuptials, the groom obtained an injunction preventing a British tabloid newspaper, The Sun, from publishing embarrassing photographs of him allegedly indulging in ‘semi-naked’, ‘silly schoolboy antics’ at a party, according to the Daily Mail. Crucial to the judge’s ruling was his view that, if published, the photographs -- which had been posted on what The Sun claimed was a publicly-accessible Facebook page -- would cause embarrassment for Mr RocknRoll’s new wife’s children, who would possibly be taunted at school.
Perhaps a short pause and a spot of reflection would be helpful here, while we chew over this point: your mother has just got hitched to a bloke who has changed his name by deed poll from Abel Smith to Ned RocknRoll. You’re going to take some stick at school on that basis alone, regardless of how many racy snaps of mama’s new hubby appear in the press. Not only that, but anyone who changes his name from Abel Smith to Ned RocknRoll is clearly seeking attention.
But English judges now take the view that celebrities have a right not to be embarrassed, even if they are embarrassing themselves – or at least not to be embarrassed in the poor old-fashioned print media.