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A recent data snapshot of the NSW legal landscape reveals a thriving, growing profession. One that is trying to achieve greater cultural diversity from the ground up, and with a focus on access to justice.

The 2021 annual profile of NSW solicitors has been released by the Law Society of NSW, providing transparency to the profession and the broader community about the demographic and staff retention difficulties it faces in
the years ahead.

Though there are challenges around gender equality, senior leadership and regional representation, the profession broadly is working hard to tip the scales in a positive way.

The comprehensive report collates the records of all solicitors who held practising certificates as of 31 October 2021. It includes demographic characteristics and other various aspects of working life such as sector of practice, location, hours worked and annual income.

Compiled by consultancy firm Urbis using the Law Society’s database and responses to the 2021 voluntary practising certificate survey, the profile also identifies trends by comparing 2021 information with data from previous years.

One of the trends the report highlights is the community-orientated nature of the profession, with over a third of solicitors providing pro-bono, unpaid or voluntary work in the previous 12 months. This could be a result of the need for legal assistance arising from natural disasters including bushfires and floods, and the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on businesses and individuals.

Members of the profession contributed $344m in legal services free of charge to the community in this reporting period.

Although the profession is culturally diverse, with more than a quarter (29 per cent) of all solicitors born overseas, the representation is lower than the general population of NSW. Overseas-born solicitors predominantly come from Asia, and this has increased by eight per cent since 2011.

Joanne van der Plaat, President of the Law Society of NSW Joanne van der Plaat, President of the Law Society of NSW

“What we as lawyers can celebrate is a younger, more culturally diverse and more female profession. There’s a way to go yet, but year by year, I think we’re seeing the profession in NSW growing to reflect more accurately the Australian community. That can only be a good thing.”

The legal profession continues to grow, up four per cent from 2020 and seven per cent on average since 1997. More than 37,000 solicitors hold a NSW practising certificate, and for the fifth consecutive year, female lawyers outnumber their male counterparts.

Women have a younger age profile than men, and although the proportion of female private practice principals is increasing, they are still underrepresented in the top levels of the profession.

The report highlights there is still work to be done in retaining women in senior leadership roles.

“The Law Society is committed to working with the profession and listening to other experts to
assist law firms to develop ways of nurturing all their talent. We want to work with practice principals to find more effective ways of retaining highly qualified women in the law after absences due to family or other obligations,” van der Plaat said.

The gender pay gap remains evident, and is most noticeable for those over 30, with a greater proportion of full-time males earning over $150,000 compared to full-time females. This finding was consistent across all practice sectors.