Solicitors have come out fighting against “false impressions” of exorbitant fees and excessive profits, saying their profession has suffered from the recession as much as any other sector.
A report for the Law Society says incomes for self-employed solicitors plummeted 43% on average over 2007-2012 and that one in five legal sector employees lost their jobs.
Law Society director general Ken Murphy said: “Contrary to the proposition that’s sometimes advanced that the solicitors’ profession has not been severely hit by the recession, far from it is the case.
“It has been very, very severely hit and at last here is objective evidence that goes beyond anecdote.”
The report, by consultants, Fitzpatrick Associates, says there are 9,226 practicing solicitors working in 2,176 law firms, the largest 15 of which (0.7% of the total) employ 22% of all solicitors, so the vast majority are small, local operations.
Gross income for self-employed solicitors fell by 43% in 2007-2012, and by as much as 53% in the border, midlands and western region, while the number of legal professionals receiving unemployment payments is three times higher now than in 2006.
“While there is evidence of recovery in the general economy, that recovery for solicitors is patchy,” Mr Murphy said.
“Some are experiencing recovery, particularly larger commercial firms, but others, particularly those smaller firms the furthest from Dublin are experiencing little or no recovery.”
The report comes as work continues on the long-delayed Legal Services Regulation Bill which the troika pressurised the Government to introduce to shake up what is often regarded as a sheltered profession enjoying high charges that are a barrier to business growth.
The report says that perception has been bolstered by “questionable” Central Statistics Office price indexes and by the World Bank’s “non-representative” Doing Business reports which, it claims, surveyed just five people in Ireland for the 2015 report and just four for the 2014 report.
The report also says the distinction between legal costs and solicitors’ professional fees is rarely made in the debate about costs. It says outlays such as court and registration fees, expert fees and enforcement costs, which may be part of a total legal bill, are separate from solicitors’ fees and are often set by the State.
“There has been an impression crated of the legal profession as a sheltered sector that was not negatively affected, where disproportionate profits continually accrue, and where unwarranted and excessive costs are placed on the rest of the economy,” it says.
“The tendency is to paint a negative and simplistic picture that captures headlines or feeds negative perceptions, often on the basis of inaccurate or unrepresentative evidence.”
Mr Murphy said he expected redrafting of the Legal Services Regulation Bill to be completed early next year, but it is already three years in the making.
“I think it’s been found that the matters in respect of which it proposes to legislate are much more complicated than had originally been thought and interrupting and altering an existing system, which we believed worked quite well, creates complexities in terms of the knock-on effects.”
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