It might not feel like it to some, but the economic environment for large law firms has been benign for a long time. It has been difficult not to make money. According to Legal Business, the top 100 UK law firms (that is, less than 1% of the 10,000 or so in the UK), still manage to gross over £17.5 billion, even in these supposedly tough economic times. That’s at least 50% of the total value of the legal economy. And for the more than 8,000 equity partners in those firms, this produced an average net profit share (PEP) of almost £650,000. By most people’s reckoning (even in the world of clients), that’s a lot of money for a lot of people – and it is only an average. It’s not so much the size of any individual reward that’s the issue (the range is reported as £138,000 to £1,840,000 – and it’s no longer Slaughter and May, or any other Magic Circle firm, at the top): rather, it’s the sheer number of people who are able to extract this level of averaged reward in a reactive service market that is dependent on client activity.
Here we are, then, one year into alternative business structures (ABSs). For those who were expecting a revolution, the start to ABSs has been, well, muted. But was revolution ever a reasonable expectation? The statutory timetable envisages a licensing process that could take up to nine months. The SRA has also ensured that the timetable doesn’t start to run with the submission of a stage 1 application, so its nine-month timeline hasn’t been reached yet. The question is: does 36 ABS licences (ignoring the multiple licences issued to Irwin Mitchell) in the first year represent a good outcome, slow take-up by the market, or slow processing by the regulators? Has the whole thing – as many opponents of ABS would like us to believe – been a damp squib, an unnecessary and expensive addition to the regulatory terrain?
This morning’s seminar on reforming legal education and training, hosted by Westminster Legal Policy Forum, provided a timely opportunity to reflect on the progress so far of the Legal Education & Training Review (LETR).
The lead for the LETR, Professor Julian Webb, rightly reminded us that the function of the Review is to address the question of how best to regulate legal education and training – specifically, the scope, reach and proportionality of that regulation. He said that, so far, responses to the LETR discussion papers had reflected vested interests, and had demonstrated limited consensus and offered little in the way of alternative vision.