If you’ve been researching the legal industry you’ve probably come across the terms barrister and solicitor countless times. You might be wondering what they mean and how they differ from each other in terms of role and responsibilities.
In very simple terms, the difference between the two is that a barrister stands up and represents clients in court while a solicitor prepares legal documents and mostly works in an office setting. Of course, there are some exceptions to this rule.
Most of the time, when people need legal advice, they’ll go and see a solicitor first. Then, if the case or matter needs to go to court, the solicitor will instruct a barrister. If the case deals with a specialist area of law, a solicitor might also ask a barrister to write an ‘opinion’ or a piece of legal advice on the subject.
Solicitors who work in contentious practice areas, such as litigation, family or employment will do much of the preparatory work, including drafting documents and submitting them to the court, ahead of a hearing.
Sometimes, litigation solicitors will stand up in court and represent their clients themselves – this is called advocacy. More frequently though, they will instruct a barrister who specialises in a particular area of law to do this on their behalf.
Many solicitors, particularly those in corporate or City law firms, don’t do any contentious work at all and will never go near a court room. This is common in transactional practice areas such as finance or corporate. A property solicitor specialising in conveyancing (the process of buying and selling houses) is also very unlikely ever to go to court.
Solicitors are typically employed by a law firm (private practice) or company (in-house) and will receive a monthly salary. Solicitors who have climbed up the ranks of a law firm to become an equity partner will also share in the profits of the firm.
The career path of a solicitor is roughly as follows:
Private practice: trainee solicitor – solicitor/associate – senior/managing associate – salary partner – equity partner.
In-house: trainee solicitor – (junior) legal counsel – senior legal counsel – general counsel.
Barristers are typically instructed by solicitors to represent a client in court. The solicitor will provide the barrister with details of the case, which the barrister will then study and analyse before presenting their argument in court.
You may have seen that barristers sometimes wear wigs and gowns in court. This was historically an easy way to distinguish between the different types of lawyer in the court setting. As of 2007, wearing a wig is no longer a requirement in family and civil court proceedings, although some barristers continue to do so. Barristers in the criminal court still wear wigs.
Barristers are typically self-employed and work in a chambers or set alongside a number of other barristers. They are responsible, with the help of their clerks, for finding their own work, and each case or matter will be paid for separately.
Some very experienced barristers will eventually become King’s Counsel (KC). This is a title which can usually only be obtained once a barrister has at least 10-15 years’ experience. KCs are informally referred to as ‘silks’ because of the silk gowns they wear. A KC takes precedence over other barristers in a court setting.
The routes to becoming a solicitor or a barrister are different too.
A solicitor will need to do an undergraduate degree in law or a non-law subject, followed by the Solicitors Qualifying Examination and then a training contract or period of recognised training.
A barrister will need to undertake a Bar training course after completing their undergraduate degree. Non-law graduates who want to be barristers will also need to do the Graduate Diploma in Law.