This year’s survey shows that the workforce is changing faster than ever before, as are employee expectations of how, when and where they want to work. There is a general sense that law firms need to improve in meeting employee expectations and recruiting and retaining talent, reinforced by high staff turnover in the legal sector. We are seeing a demand for firms to digitally upskill their workforce and encourage innovation and transformation, through hiring, training, investment in start-ups/labs, or alternative workplaces.

We are seeing a gradual trend of increasing female representation at partner level, while at trainee level, firms continue to recruit more females than males. BAME representation at partner level remains flat, but has slightly grown at trainee grade.

At a glance


  • Total headcount has increased in the Top 10 (8%) and Top 11-25 (7%), whilst falling in the Top 26-50 (-5%) and these reverse the movements of prior year. There appears to have been a significant increase in the Top 51-100 workforce; however, this is largely due to a change in mix of respondents. On a like for like basis the Top 51-100 total headcount increases have generally been between 1% and 6%
  • Partner headcount continues to be managed carefully, with reductions at full equity in the Top 11-25 and 51-100 (by 5.4% and 7.4% respectively). Top 26-50 firms, on average, have held full equity partner numbers flat, whilst Top 10 firms have seen a 2.8% increase.
  • Top 10 firms have focussed on increasing junior headcount; for example, two thirds of these firms increased the number of newly qualified and paralegal and legal executives.
  • In Top 11-25 firms, there is more of a widespread increase in headcount across the different fee earner grades, excluding 3-5 years pqe and > 5 years pqe where headcount decreased.

Staff turnover

  • Staff turnover continues to be higher than expected compared to other professional service organisation sectors across the fee earner grades, with the exception of newly qualified and trainees.
  • In the 1-5 years pqe grades, the largest turnover is for 3-5 years pqe for all Top 50 bandings (Top 10: 19%; Top 11-25: 19%, Top 26-50: 22%). This is above what we would consider as optimal attrition, and with high headcount at the > 5 years pqe grade, may suggest concern over opportunity for advancement.
  • Staff turnover rates at the paralegal and legal executive grade continue to be high in a number of firms, reflecting the shorter term nature of contracts and high levels of mobility. The range across the bandings is from 14% in Top 51-100 firms to 42% in Top 10 firms.


  • As changes to business support headcount mirror those across the fee earner population, the ratio of fee earners to non-fee earners has remained generally flat (Top 10: 1.3 in 2019 and 2018, Top 11-25: down 0.1 to 1.5, Top 26-50: up 0.1 to 1.6; and Top 51-100: up 0.3 to 1.8).
  • Top 10 and 11-25 firms have increased the ratio of fee earners to full equity partners, in Top 10 firms from 7.2 to 7.7 and in Top 11-25 firms from 7.5 to 8.7, and this reflects fee earner headcount increases and management of partner headcount.

Partner bonus performance conditions

  • In Top 10 and 26-50 firms, there is an even weighting between personal and financial performance metrics driving bonus outcomes for fixed share equity partners. There is much greater emphasis on personal performance in Top 11-25 firms.
  • It is important that all firms continue to embed key operational (such as reducing lock-up) and strategic priorities (such as referral of work) into their bonus targets, not just for partners, but also other fee earning staff.

Chargeable hours and utilisation

  • Chargeable hours in Top 10 firms have fallen for full and fixed share equity partners (6.9% and 8.7% respectively) and trainees (3.5%) and are generally flat across the remaining grades.
  • Top 11-25 firms have increased chargeable hours at all grades except newly qualified and trainees (down 1.5% and 4.5% respectively).
  • Significant spare capacity continues across all bandings and all grades. Focussing on the post qualified grades, this ranges from 7% spare capacity for 1-2 years and 3-5 years pqe in Top 10 firms up to 21% for >5 years pqe in Top 51-100 firms.


  • The gradual trend of increasing female representation at partner level over the last 7 years (2012 to 2019) has continued for Top 10 (15.6% to 20.4%), Top 26-50 firms (14.4% to 19.9%) and Top 51-100 firms (14.4% to 18.4%). Over that same period, the percentage has dropped in Top 11-25 firms from 18.7% to 18.1% (2018: 19.3%).
  • At trainee level, firms across all bandings continue to recruit more females than males (c.60% female representation across the vast majority of respondents).
  • BAME representation in Top 10 firms at partner level is flat at 7%, whilst at the trainee grade it has grown from 19% to 22%. In Top 11-25 firms, BAME representation has fallen for partners (8% to 5%) and trainees (18% to 12%). 
  • In the Top 10, 83% stated that they had a strategy in place to address gender and BAME imbalances across the business. This compares with the majority of Top 11-25 firms, where 91% have strategies in relation to gender and 82% in respect of BAME. The strategies take the form of formal targets/policies for the most part, whilst some firms note initiatives such as parental support and internal networks.
  • In terms of diversity targets, 83% of Top 10 firms have targets for female representation at partner level compared to 64% in the Top 11-25. In the Top 10 and Top 11-25, just under one fifth have targets for BAME representation at partner level.
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