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Legal services outside major urban areas face uncertain future, says Law Society chief

Survey of solicitors raises prospect of ‘legal deserts’ as pressures mount on small firms

“There is no doubt that legal services will thrive in Ireland, the question is will they thrive in every community in Ireland,” says Law Society director general Mark Garrett.

That is one of several questions raised by a survey of solicitors commissioned by the society to “get a sense of how the profession sees itself” and inform its strategic review for the next five years.

Carried out by Behaviour & Attitudes, the survey indicates elements of the profession are thriving in major urban areas but raises real concern about the future of smaller practices outside those.

The results indicate “lots of positives”, “quite a lot of optimism” and “a vibrant profession with lots of opportunities but with a clear view of challenges as well”, says Mr Garrett.


The number of solicitors has grown from 4,500 25 years ago to 12,000 and the growing demand for solicitors and growing interest in the career is evident by the society now having almost 1,600 trainees in its system, the highest ever, he says.

The profession is not a straightforward mix of large and small firms, but “a mosaic of different types of organisation, different practices and people coming from different backgrounds which has evolved to match the needs of an evolving economy and society”.

Large firms with more than 100 solicitors service a “very significant” portion of the economy. The survey shows “massive” growth of in-house solicitors to 21 per cent; and of specialist small firms offering boutique specialised services.

Yet other areas of the profession, including community-based services and smaller and sole partner-operated firms operating outside Dublin, are under pressure, he notes.

Of the 2,264 survey respondents, women accounted for 54 per cent. The median age of all respondents was 46; 40 per cent were aged under 43 and 58 per cent were based in Dublin.

Forty-one per cent had some level of optimism about the profession’s future, 29 per cent veered towards pessimism and 31 per cent were neutral.

Those in firms with more than 100 solicitors were more optimistic about growth than sole practitioners and small firms

Just over one in five, 22 per cent, expected their own area of work/business to grow a lot in the next five years, 30 per cent expected it to grow a little, a similar number predicted no change and 15 per cent expected it to deteriorate. Those in firms with more than 100 solicitors were more optimistic about growth than sole practitioners and small firms.

For Mr Garrett, the “biggest learning” from the survey is the pressures on legal services outside major urban areas, which he says is in line with what is happening in Irish society, including a lack of GPs and other professional services outside such areas.

Most – some 82 per cent – of the 2022 intake of trainees were attached to Dublin-based organisations/firms and almost 90 per cent were in Dublin and Cork, he notes.

“One statistic that jumped out at me is we have 11 counties in Ireland now that had either one or zero solicitor trainees in 2022. Mayo has one trainee for its size and scale.”

Tipperary, Mayo, Westmeath, Kilkenny, Carlow, Leitrim, Offaly and Laois each recorded just one trainee; while Roscommon, Monaghan and Longford had none.

“If we have 11 counties of that nature now, what happens in five, 10, 15 years down the line when we want to provide family law or legal aid services? We’re talking about legal aid deserts.”

Conveyancing, litigation, civil litigation/personal injuries, probate and commercial were the top five areas of practise of respondents. Of those, all but commercial were higher among sole practitioners/partners and lower among in-house solicitors in the private sector.

More than one in five, or 22 per cent, practise family law, 20 per cent employment law, 13 per cent data protection and 12 per cent medical negligence. Just 10 per cent are in criminal practice.

The top five challenges facing the profession were identified as cybersecurity/cybercrime, recruitment/talent retention, regulations/ compliance changes, meeting the expectations of clients and wellbeing/mental health. Hybrid working; harassment, sexual harassment and bullying; and a growth in limited liability partnerships were seen as lesser challenges.

Opportunities for the profession, identified mainly by in-house solicitors and those in larger firms, include the hybrid working environment, digital technology, supporting employers against cybercrime, new technologies and growth in the Irish economy. Smaller firms were less likely to identify any of the areas cited as significant opportunities for them.

Two out of three respondents want significant reform in digitalisation of the legal sector and almost half want specialist courts for intellectual property, family law and planning law.

Significant reform of the family law/civil legal and criminal legal aid systems and judicial appointments was sought by more than one in three. Just over half of respondents said they did not know enough to assess whether the legal aid system was working well, but 31 per cent said the criminal legal aid system was not working well and 36 per cent said the family law legal aid/civil legal aid system was not working well.

Mr Garrett, who is not a lawyer, worked in the public and private sectors over some 20 years, “always with a view to understanding and shaping government policy”. The positions he held included chief of staff for former tánaiste and Labour Party leader Eamon Gilmore.

The role of law and the legal profession in the wider societal and economic context attracted him to his current role.

The Ireland for Law initiative promotes Ireland internationally as a common-law jurisdiction with a robust justice system and the commercial court is a “significant success” and “first-class” element of our justice system, he says.

Other areas, such as family law “are at best second class”. The family law courts Bill is “very positive” but reform needs to be faster, including the specialised family law courts building at Hammond Lane in Dublin which is “still a hole in the ground”.

Noting the Law Reform Commission first mentioned the potential for family courts in the mid-1970s, Garrett says the delays are “unjustifiable”.

Conveyancing, a huge area of practice, is ‘ripe for digitalisation’

Legal aid needs action because an inadequate legal aid service and low fees undermines access to justice and adds to the pressures on smaller practices, he stresses.

“People are shying away from that work for the very simple reason that it is not economically viable. It is unjustifiable to think that those areas under most pressure are those that potentially will undermine access to justice for those most in need. ”

The survey shows a “huge appetite” for modernisation of the courts system through digitalisation, types of sittings, specialisation of the courts and other reforms, Garrett notes.

Conveyancing, a huge area of practice, is “ripe for digitalisation” and the housing issue is an area of real concern within society. That would require “real co-operation and collaboration” with many elements of the State, including the Revenue, land registry and county councils.

Addressing other survey findings that wellbeing and issues of bullying, harassment, sexual harassment are of concern, particularly for trainees, he notes a greater awareness in society generally of wellbeing.

Surveys here and internationally show the solicitors profession “at the higher end when it comes to stress” and this survey shows the regulatory/administrative burden adds to stress levels for small firms, he says.

The society has had wellbeing programmes and support services in place for some five years for trainees whose feedback has encouraged the society to broaden that out as a service to the profession in general, he outlines.

It is “widely agreed” within the profession that there must be clarity on what are, and are not, acceptable behaviours. While the society believes it has “significant and robust” procedures in place around these issues, it will be “constantly looking” at those.

According to Mr Garrett, the survey shows solicitors see the value of regulation and high standards.

The society is in the early stages of a co-regulation model with the Legal Services Regulatory Authority (LSRA) under which anyone unhappy with a solicitor’s work can complain to the LSRA, while complaints relating to a solicitor’s handling of financial matters are made to the society because it holds a compensation fund funded directly by solicitors.

There are no issues of concern in this regard when it comes to the vast majority of solicitors, stresses Mr Garrett. “As in any regulated profession, there will be occasions when people do not meet the standards expected of them and there is a robust inspection and a significant process whereby people can indicate what is the true case and there is a compensation fund at the end of it.”

In only a small number of cases, the society will go to the High Court seeking to have a solicitor suspended or struck off, he adds.

Noting this year marks the centenary of the first women solicitors here, he says, when it comes to gender, socioeconomic background, sexual identity, ethnic background and disability, the legal profession, like all others, should reflect the society in which it operates.

The Law Society has programmes to promote greater diversity in the profession, including with transition-year students, and is planning more. The public sector has a role to play in offering more legal traineeships and a more diverse work experience, he adds.

Having a growing and thriving legal profession requires embracing all opportunities “to attract the brightest and best”, he says. “You can talk about it as the right thing to do, which it is, but it’s also the practical thing to do, to be very open. People come into the profession from very different backgrounds. I grew up on a council estate in the west of Ireland and started my professional journey as an apprentice electrician.”