Barristers concerned about income as pandemic bites, survey finds

Majority in survey worried about their ability to stay in profession, says Bar Council

The Four Courts. Photograph: iStock

The Four Courts. Photograph: iStock

 

More than half of barristers are worried about their ability to stay in practice this year as the coronavirus pandemic continues to bite, according to a new survey by the Bar Council. The survey found a significant proportion of barristers are suffering a severe drop in income as the crisis drags on.

At the same time, the latest figures on practising certificates for solicitors show that the State’s top law firms continued to grow last year despite an effective closure of large parts of the economy. Matheson is now the State’s largest law firm when measured by number of solicitors.

The Bar Council survey found that 52 per cent of barristers considered the viability of their practice the most significant challenge facing them in the year ahead.

Worries about an ability to keep their practice going are being felt most keenly by those at an earlier stage of their career, the figures show.

The survey, which involved 336 barristers, or 15 per cent of the overall membership of the Bar Council, found that almost 90 per cent had suffered an income decline in 2020, with 45 per cent saying the cut had been up to 50 per cent.

One tenth of respondents who had experienced a fall in income said the drop had been 80 per cent or more.

Almost 6 per cent of respondents said their income had improved in 2020, while others did not report any change. The survey found that slightly more than a quarter of respondents were experiencing anxiety, while a similar proportion reported low job satisfaction.

The barristers also expressed concern about how their clients were being affected by delayed and cancelled court hearings, and other access to justice problems caused by the pandemic.

Solicitors

Meanwhile the latest figures on solicitors’ practising certificates, published in the Law Society Gazette, show that Matheson is now the State’s largest law firm by number of solicitors on the roll.

It has replaced A&L Goodbody in the top slot. Since the figures were first published six years ago, A&L Goodbody or Arthur Cox have taken turns sharing the top place.

As of December 31st last, Matheson had 327 solicitors, having had 285 at the end of 2019. A&L Goodbody had 320 (313 in 2019), and Arthur Cox had 312 (219 in 2019).

The other top rankers, McCann FitzGerald and Mason Hayes & Curran, both increased the number of solicitors they employed in 2020, while the fifth-ranking firm, William Fry, remained unchanged, with 207 solicitors.

Although the State’s top law firms continued to grow during 2020, the pandemic has hit pay rates, with some firms known to have introduced pay cuts of up to 20 per cent. Others have cut their bonus schemes and partner distributions.

The Gazette also reports the figures as showing that the Brexit-driven trend of solicitors with large firms in the UK taking out practising certificates here “has now come to an end”.

As a result of a decision made late last year, the Gazette said, “based on a deep-dive review of policy and the relevant law”, the Law Society no longer issues certificates to firms who do not have an office, or plan to have an office, in this jurisdiction.

Last year the Law Society of England and Wales said the change meant thousands of England and Wales-qualified solicitors who had paid for Irish certificates to protect their EU practising rights “appear to have wasted their money”.

The total number of certificates issued to the top 20 law firms grew to 2,873 at the end of 2020, from 2,658 a year earlier, despite one international firm, Allen & Overy, that was ranked seventh last year, not being on the latest list at all.

Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP was shown to have 88 solicitors at the end of 2020, down from 101 the previous year and is “unlikely to feature at all next year”, according to the Gazette.