The differences between a solicitor and a barrister

So, you want to be a lawyer.

It’s easy to see why: the legal profession is not only a lucrative career path, it’s a highly rewarding one, too. What’s more, in a sector so vast, you’re spoilt for choice when it comes to selecting a specialism. However, before you start exploring your options, you might want to stop and consider what kind of lawyer you’d like to be.

When most people think of lawyers, they think of barristers clad in wigs and gowns representing their clients in court. However, in the legal system of England and Wales, the word ‘lawyer’ is used to describe any person that is a Licensed Legal Practitioner: this includes both solicitors and barristers, whose job roles differ greatly to one another.

The key difference between the two is that a barrister predominantly acts as an advocate in legal hearings while a solicitor performs legal work outside of court. However, there’s a bit more to it than that.

The role of a solicitor

The solicitor is the first port of call for a client in need: when most people say they need to speak to their lawyer, they’re referring to a solicitor. Working directly with their clients as part of an organisation, solicitors provide specialist advice and representation to both businesses and individuals across the entire legal field.

From family law, property law and personal injury to commercial matters regarding employment, corporate contracts or commercial disputes, a solicitor will work “behind the scenes” to find favourable outcomes for their clients as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Day to day, their duties will involve drafting and reviewing legal documents, researching case law, delivering legal advice in client meetings and preparing cases for court. The need for a barrister will depend on the complexity or severity of a case: if it’s a contentious issue that must be heard in court, the solicitor will prepare all the necessary legal documents and instruct a barrister to plead the case on behalf of the client before the courts.

Ultimately, solicitors will do all they can to prevent a case from going to court. For example, if a divorcing couple are locked in conflict, a solicitor will try to bring the dispute to a fair conclusion through mediation and negotiation.

Skills and qualifications

The road to qualification is long, but rewarding once complete. After completing an undergraduate degree in law (or a degree in another subject and a one-year Common Professional Exam or Post-Graduate Diploma in Law), you must complete a one-year Legal Practice Course and finally work through a two-year training contract.

It’s a lot to take on, but during this time, would-be lawyers will develop the skills necessary to work in the industry such as problem solving, communication and attention to detail.

The role of a barrister

While the role of a barrister is generally considered to be more glamourous, most people will never have the chance to peek behind the curtain at the work that goes on in a barrister’s chambers. Most barristers will work on a self-employed basis, sharing these chambers to keep the cost of operating from prime London real estate to a minimum.

While we tend to associate barristers with criminal cases, this is just one of several areas of law they may choose to specialise in. In fact, barristers can be found representing clients in civil litigation cases such as divorce, child support and personal injury as well as a range of commercial matters. Whereas criminal barristers will spend most of their time in court defending their clients, commercial barristers will largely work in their chambers, writing complex documents and advising in conference on legal issues.

Since they are independent as opposed to employed by a firm, barristers within the same chambers are free to act on different sides of the same dispute. While barristers can be instructed directly by the public, it’s more common for a solicitor to instruct a barrister on the clients’ behalf if the case requires a legal hearing.

Skills and qualifications

Beyond the “razzle dazzle”, barristers must have strong negotiating skills; they must be prepared to fight for things which contradict their own beliefs. In order to achieve a favourable outcome for their client, a successful barrister will be able to bring clarity to complex legal arguments and get the jury on side.

Just like a solicitor, barristers must first complete either a specialist undergraduate degree in law or attain a degree in another discipline and take on a one-year Common Professional Exam or Post-Graduate Diploma in Law. From here, completion of the Bar Professional Training Course will be necessary, followed by a pupillage, whereby graduates will take on a year of practical training under the supervision of an experienced barrister.