2016 review of the attorneys’ profession

October 24th, 2016

By Mapula Thebe

The Law Society of South Africa (LSSA) in conjunction with LexisNexis conducted a national survey of the attorneys’ profession. Drawing comparisons against a 2014 survey, the survey analysed the evolution of South African law firms as they responded to the challenges facing the profession in 2016.

The sample of 746 respondents genuinely reflected the geographical and gender demographics of attorneys practising in South African law firms, the bulk of respondents were situated in small law firms. The results indicated that while more than half of the respondents possessed an equity stake in their business, the majority work in small firms with five or fewer fee earners. With 336 sole practitioners, 287 incorporated companies and 82 partnerships surveyed, it is clear that the country’s landscape is shaped by a few large law firms and many smaller practices.

It is interesting to note that just over 60% of the survey respondents have ten or more years’ experience in their respective legal fields with conveyancing, commercial and family law appearing to be the top three focus areas for most law firms.

The survey results showed that, as with global trends, the legal fraternity has embraced the online world, especially when it comes to research. Online marketing, service provision and the use of social media are now regarded as priority for many firms. Networking remains a firm focus for business growth strategies.


  • Location

The sample demographics roughly mirrors the GDP of the economy with almost 50% of the respondents based in Gauteng. Northern Cape had the lowest concentration of respondents.

Figure 1 – Location

Figure 1 – Location

  • Age

In terms of age, the respondents showed a fairly wide age range of between 23 and 84 years, with 32 and 35 being the most prevalent ages.

Figure 2 – Age

Figure 2 – Age

  • Gender

While still a male dominated industry, almost 40% of the respondents were female.

Figure 3 – Gender

Figure 3 – Gender

  • Race

Although 60% of attorneys are white, 71% of survey respondents were white.

Figure 4 – Race

Figure 4 – Race

Professional segmentation

  • Roles
Figure 5 – Roles

Figure 5 – Roles

  • Practice type/fee earners

Incorporated companies tend to represent firms with a larger number and spread of fee earners. Sole practitioners do not employ more than ten fee earners.

Figure 6 – Practice types/fee earners

Figure 6 – Practice types/fee earners


  • Practice categories/fee earners

Boutique or niche firms have the highest concentration of one to two fee earners, while larger firms are more generalist.

Figure 7 – Practice categories/fee earners

Figure 7 – Practice categories/fee earners

Transformational issues

  • Ownership by race

The majority of survey respondents work in fully white-owned firms. Forty percent of the sample work in firms with more representative shareholding structures. Only 11% of firms sampled are wholly black owned.


Figure 8 – Ownership by race

Figure 8 – Ownership by race

  • Mixed ownership/race

Only 20% of firms in the sample have mixed ownership. Where there is black ownership in mixed-ownership schemes, black owners are in the minority with 25% equity or less. Likewise there is a high concentration of Coloured and Indian minority shareholders. Only 10% of mixed ownership schemes have majority black ownership as opposed to 69% white majority stake in mixed ownership.

Ownership by race has changed significantly in the past eight years. Since 2008 there are 20% less fully white-owned firms and 14% more mixed-ownership firms. Fully black-owned firms have only grown by 3% according to the sample.

Twenty-seven percent of the sample have mixed gender ownership structures. Women are in the minority in mixed-ownership firms. Since 2008 there are 14% less fully male-owned firms in South Africa and 5% less fully female-owned firms. Gender-mixed ownership, however, has increased by 18%.

The survey results show that in female-owned firms there is little male input. Whereas in fully male owned firms there is an attempt to include female decision makers. In the majority of mixed ownership firms 50% or less of the decision makers are female.

Briefing patterns

According to the sample, personal relationships and referrals are the key drivers when choosing an advocate.




Mapula Thebe NDip Journ (DUT) BTech (Journ) (TUT) is the editor of De Rebus.

 This article was first published in De Rebus in 2016 (Nov) DR 10.