Steven Preston: Chambers upbeat over Scottish law profession performance

When the first national lockdown came into force in March 2020, the initial forecasts were pessimistic. Indeed, many law firms saw an immediate drop in work as the courts closed and as their clients paused all but the most essential matters.

Steven Preston
Steven Preston

We saw many firms make use of the government’s job retention scheme in order to guard against potential cash flow problems caused by the unprecedented situation we found ourselves in. However, after a brief lull business began to pick up and many firms report being as busy, if not busier, than they were pre-pandemic.

Our dedicated team of researchers spent seven months between January and July 2021 delving into the Scottish legal market. They interviewed hundreds of Scottish lawyers and thousands of clients of Scotland-headquartered firms, as well as national and international firms with offices in Scotland. They used the information gleaned from those interactions to compile our Chambers UK 2022 rankings. When conducting our research, we discovered that a mood of cautious optimism had replaced those initial gloomy forecasts.

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As with the other nations in the UK, business activity in Scotland is doing better than expected. To take one example, in 2021 M&A involving Scottish companies is due to surpass 2020 levels. Of course, where there are transactions being done, there are busy lawyers.

Buoyant activity levels are reflected in the most recent financial results announced by prominent independent Scottish firms including Brodies, Burness Paull and Shepherd and Wedderburn, all of which have reported revenue growth in 2020-21.

Moreover, UK national and international firms continue to grow their presence north of the Border and we continue to see new entrants into the market. This month, Ince & Co. joined the likes of Gunnercooke and Burgess Salmon with recent office openings in Scotland. Those companies join a long list of firms with headquarters in England that see opportunity in Scotland.

The growth we have seen in the Scottish legal market has been reflected in the Chambers UK 2022 rankings. In Scotland, the number of individuals we rank has grown by close to 10 per cent, which outstrips the ranking growth we’ve seen in the rest of the UK.

Some practice areas in particular stand out. The number of lawyers ranked in our Scottish Immigration table has grown by 33 per cent, as firms have built out their practices in order to provide clients with the advice they need to navigate the post-Brexit immigration landscape.

Similarly, we have seen the number of lawyers recognised in Education increase by 43 per cent, reflecting a pandemic-related surge of work in that area.

The number of women recognised in our Scottish ranking tables has steadily increased by close to 2 per cent. There were questions raised about just how committed firms and clients would be to diversity and inclusion when the going got tough. Our research suggests that this continues to be a key issue for both. Clients stress that they want their legal teams to reflect the society in which they operate and put pressure on their law firms to improve in this area. Chambers has placed an emphasis on diversity and inclusion as part of our research and we continue to focus on improving the gender diversity of our ranking tables.

The 2020-21 Law Society of Scotland’s biennial diversity survey revealed a profession that is 55 per cent female. Although the survey does not differentiate between levels of seniority, it is likely that the experience in Scotland mirrors that of similar surveys in England and Wales, which show the number of female lawyers declining as seniority increases.

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In our 2022 rankings, women make up 41 per cent of all lawyers ranked in Scotland and close to 37 per cent of lawyers with top-level rankings. When we look at rankings for junior lawyers, women outstrip men three to one, making up 74 per

cent of our total number of Associates to Watch. The numbers at a senior level are improving year on year and are suggestive of an industry that is improving its gender diversity. However, there remains a disconnect between the total number of women in the profession and the number who make it to the senior ranks.

- Steven Preston is a research manager with Chambers and Partners

This article first appeared in The Scotsman’s Legal Review 2021