The UK helped to bring a framework for law to the world and as we move into the digital age it continues to lead the way.
The UK is one of the most vibrant markets for legal services in the world. As an industry it accounts for around 1.6% of the UK’s gross domestic product and employs almost 400,000 people. It is the most internationally open market in the world offering virtually unrestricted access to foreign firms with hundreds having offices in London. This makes our capital a worldwide centre for the law.
Key to this strength has been the enduring global popularity of English law. It set the gold standard for the world with 320 legal jurisdictions basing themselves on English Common law.
A brief history
England was responsible for laying the foundation stones of the legal structure most of the world follows to this day.
In 1823 the London Law Institution which would later lead to the Law Society was founded by a group of London based solicitors. They wanted to build trust in the sector by setting unified standards to ensure good practice. Two years later, in 1825, they dropped London from the title and simply became the ‘Law Institution’ to reflect its growing international ambitions.
For most of its early years the legal sector was male dominated. However, the arrival of the 20th century brought more progressive attitudes. The first female solicitor was admitted to the British legal profession in 1922.
Many of the world’s largest law firms trace their roots back to the 19th century and beyond, but in the 1980s firms began to consolidate. In 1987 law firms Clifford Turner and Coward Chance merged to form Clifford Chance. It was the world’s largest law firm merger at the time.
It sparked a wave of consolidations including the mergers of Lovell, White & King and Durrant Piesse in 1987; Pinsent & Co and Simpson Curtis in 1995; Nabarro Nathanson and Turner Kenneth Brown in 1995; Dibb Lupton Broomhead and Alsop Wilkinson in 1996; Addleshaw Sons & Latham and Booth & Co. in 1996; McKenna & Co and Cameron Markby Hewitt in 1997; Hammond Suddards and Edge Ellison in 2000; and Pinsent Curtis and Biddle in 2001.
The sector was changing and regulation evolved to meet it. In 2005 the government announced major proposals for the law in England and Wales, including removing powers from the law society and the Bar to regulate its members and create a new Legal Services Board.
In 2008 Quality Solicitors was founded, a group of British law firms which created the first national chain of solicitors in the UK.
However, the Great recession of 2008 brought major changes to the UK legal sector. Jobs were lost and major firms disappeared including Halliwells in 2010 and Manchester based Cobbetts in 2013. In the same year Glasgow’s Semple Fraser was forced to shut its doors.
As the economy recovered, the mergers resumed. There was the creation of Hogan Lovells with the merger of Lovells and US based Hogan & Hartson in May 2010; Beachcroft with Davies Arnold Cooper to create DAC Beachcroft in 2011, and the joining of Norton Rose and US company Fulbright & Kaworski to create Norton Rose Fulbright in 2013. In 2016 Canadian firm Gowlings merged with UK based firm Wragge Lawrence Graham & Co to form Gowling WLG.
The sector continued to evolve in 2011 when the Legal Services Act of 2007 came into effect allowing alternative business structures with non-lawyers to offer regulated legal services in England and Wales. Before this, lawyers could only practice as solicitors in the form of sole traders or in partnership with other solicitors. Barristers could work as sole traders or be employees providing legal services to companies.
This led to the creation of Cooperative Legal Services in 2012 which was the first alternative business structure for legal services providers to be approved by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA).
How the market works
Today, according to data from 2019 there are 10,402 law firms and 146,418 practicing solicitors in the UK. Lawyers in England and Wales are divided into barristers and solicitors each of whom have their own practice customers and training requirements.
Solicitors can be described as general practitioner lawyers who have extensive direct access with clients. Barristers, meanwhile, are lawyers who specialise in courtroom advocacy, drafting legal proceedings and giving expert legal opinions.
Law firms can generally be divided into three categories: city law firms, national law firms and regional law firms.
City law firms tend to be those with offices in London. They include some of the biggest firms in the world. They have substantial profits per partners, and provide services relating to corporate finance, mergers, and acquisitions. They also work with financial services providers and serve some of the biggest financial institutions in the world.
These firms are divided into four categories:
- Magic Circle: These are UK firms with the best overall reputations including Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Linklaters and Slaughter and May. They are also some of the most profitable law firms in the world.
- Silver Circle: These firms are large and reputable, but one rung down from the Magic Circle. Profits and revenues are generally way above average and includes firms such as, Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, Herbert Smith Freehills, Hogan Lovells, Macfarlanes and Norton Rose Fulbright.
- Mid-tier: This refers to firms which are a further step down. They will generally be reasonably profitable but won’t have the international reputations of firms in the categories above.
- American law firms operating in London: The UK is a favourite base for law firms. They are around 30 law firms with an office in London with revenues of more than US$40 million. These include major names such as Baker & McKenzie, White & Case, Latham & Watkins, Reed Smith, Skadden, Squire Patton Boggs, Morgan Lewis and Bockius, Mayer Brown, Kirkland & Ellis, Dechert, Shearman & Sterling, Weil Gotshal, Cleary Gottlieb, Jones Day and Sullivan & Cromwell.
The other categories are somewhat less well known. They include:
- National law firms: Large firms with offices in a number of locations around the world. They have a broad range of clients including public sector bodies, government departments, local authorities, universities and companies. Some of the most famous include Hill Dickinson, Mills & Reeve and DWF.
- Regional law firms: These firms are based outside of London and concentrate on serving a particular area. They are much smaller and less profitable than city law firms but are still a step above the smaller high street law firms.
- High Street law firms: These operate out of a single office and main practice areas are normally family, criminal, private client and taxation law.
Into the future
Britain was the country which laid the foundations for the legal sector as we know it today. It gave the world a template for law which it followed. Throughout all that history, it has continually evolved to keep up with developments and today is no different.
As it moves into the future, the legal sector faces an evolving landscape. Digital technology provides new opportunities and challenges. The impact of the pandemic has created ripples across the sector much as the Great Recession did before it. Some major law firms have had to lay off staff, re-evaluate their business models or ways of working.
Brexit brings with it a wave of fresh uncertainties and opportunities.
However, through it all, the legal services sector in the UK will continue to be one of the most active and vibrant in the world. For all the recent uncertainties, English law continues to be a gold standard, the world over.