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A revealing snapshot of South Australia's lawyers

Opinion

New data on South Australia’s legal profession shows it is facing many of the same challenges as the state itself, writes legal commentator Morry Bailes.

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Ageing, city-centric and in the economic shadow of the eastern states… No, I am not referring to the broader struggles of South Australia, but rather its legal profession, whose woes appear to be running in parallel.

Recently the Conference of Law Societies – a body that acts as a summit of the eight law societies from each state and territory – released their report, commissioned from Urbis, about the vital statistics of the Australian legal profession. It was based on information provided by each legal practitioner at the time of making application for their annual practicing certificate. The statistics for SA paint an interesting story of both the profession and the state.

Here is a snapshot, starting with age.

The average age of a lawyer in SA is 43.7 years, with 46% of the profession admitted for 15 years or more. This makes us the state with the highest proportion of long-serving lawyers. We are an ageing profession.

Why might this be so? Obviously, people are living longer. On the other hand, it may be a sign that older members need to continue to work. Might that be a reflection of our general economic malaise when compared to other states in Australia? One thing that is certain is that it is impacting the ability of younger lawyers to get jobs and get into the profession: when compared to some of the other statistics, this seems to be an irrefutable conclusion.

Where and in what entities are we practising law? As I have remarked before, we have seen the rise of in-house lawyers. Like in other states, only 70.8% of lawyers now practise in the private profession. The balance of lawyers are in in-house government and corporate jobs – 17.5% in government and 8.9% in corporate. It is likely this trend will continue.

As to private lawyers, the statistics confirm that in large part we are a cottage industry: 70.2% are sole practitioners, 21% are in partnerships of two to four lawyers, 6.7% practise in firms with five to 20 partners, leaving only 2.1% in truly large firms with 21 partners or more.

Gender is getting closer to parity. In SA, 50.8% of lawyers are male, 49.2% are female. At our firm, 58% of our lawyers are female and 42% male, with a partner mix of 52% female and 48% male. As more women graduate from law schools, we are likely to see the gender mix continue to shift.

Disappointingly, of the whole legal profession in SA, only 0.5% are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. Having met a number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander undergraduates studying law, I can only say it is a crying shame there are not more.

As to our locations, the majority – 72.9% – are city practitioners, 19% are in the suburbs, leaving only 7.1% in rural, regional and remote areas. I have previously written on the topic. While nearly seven million Australians live outside of major cities, only slightly more than 10% of lawyers practise in those areas. Access to justice for those in rural, regional and remote Australia is a big problem and one city dwellers need to be aware of and help address. It is not purely about access to a lawyer either – the type of legal advice available must also be considered. The legal needs of rural, regional and remote communities are as diverse and specialised as their populations and industries, so the challenge is two-fold: how do we get enough lawyers to “go bush” and how do we equip them with the required specialist knowledge?

One of the most concerning findings in the study was the rate of growth of the professions in the various states and territories. In the five years prior to the collection of the data, the ACT profession grew by 50%, WA by 34%, QLD by 29%, VIC and NSW both by 23%, even Tasmania was double digits at 22%. SA was, depressingly, last at 6%. That is, we have added only 6% in practising certificates to our total from 2011 to 2016.

This must, in part, be explained by economics. In an environment of economic challenge, there is obviously less commercial activity and thus less requirement for commercial legal advice. There has also been significant tort reform in this state taking entitlements away from people injured in car accidents and at work. This has had an undoubted flow-on effect to related industries such as insurance and law.

Lawyers in this state contribute a great deal to the local economy. As a collective, we are a significant employer, but also participate and contribute to all aspects of the local economy as we purchase goods and services for our businesses and as individuals. Quite plainly, our growth as a profession in this state compared to others has regrettably stalled. Our ability to contribute to other aspects of the state’s economic health is obviously and equally stalled as well.

So there is our profession’s statistical report card. It is a story of need in rural, regional and remote areas, and for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lawyers. It is a story of emerging gender equity but with a deal more to go to reflect the gender mix coming out of law schools. And it is a story that reflects poorly, it would seem, on the economic state of South Australia.

It is hoped the next five years see our profession enjoy the growth that our eastern cousins have experienced, and that we will see a more youthful blend of lawyers. Our capacity to service clients in what might be heralded as a century of technological revolution will call for younger members to join the profession. I only hope we can answer the call because we cannot afford to be left any further behind.

Morry Bailes is the managing partner at Tindall Gask Bentley Lawyers, president-elect of the Law Council of Australia and is a past president of the Law Society of SA. The opinions expressed in this column are his own.

Disclosure: Morry Bailes is a member of the Liberal Party.

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