In England and Wales, no legal professional is classified simply as a “lawyer”—the distinction between barrister and solicitor is a sharp one, both in terms of training and professional practice, although there is some overlap. The good news is that as long as you are still an undergraduate, you probably have more than enough time to make an intelligent decision between these two career paths.
Put simply (too simply, in fact), barristers represent clients in court through effective public speaking and advocacy skills, while solicitors work behind the scenes, interacting directly with their client and other solicitors representing that client. In recent years this distinction has blurred somewhat; nevertheless, there is a major difference between what barristers usually do and what solicitors usually do.
What does a barrister do?
In case it matters to you, barristers wear a wig and gown in court while solicitors do not. On a more substantive note, however, barristers plead their clients’ cases in front of a judge. Since they also possess specialist knowledge of the law, they are often asked to provide legal advice. Barristers are typically provided with details of a new case by a solicitor who already represents the client, at which point they review the evidence and prepare for their presentation in court.
Although most barristers work independently in Chambers occupied by rival barristers (to save administrative expenses), they may also be employed as in-house advisers by corporations, banks, government agencies and solicitors firms.
What does a solicitor do?
A solicitor is the type of lawyer almost all clients see first when a case arises. Unlike barristers, solicitors frequently take on non-contentious cases, although most solicitors involve themselves with litigation most of the time. Solicitors advise clients privately, draft legal documents (including but not limited to court pleadings) and negotiate with opposing parties, among other activities. A solicitor’s job is primarily a desk job.
Solicitors can become involved with a wider variety of cases than barristers can, including commercial contract drafting, estate planning and real property transactions, among other practice areas. Solicitors can also work for a wider range of organisations that barristers can, including both commercial and non-commercial firms, government bureaus, private companies, banks and corporations. Solicitors also sometimes appear in court, typically at lower levels.
Differences in training
The legal training regimen for barristers and solicitors does not begin to diverge in a major way until undergraduate studies have been completed. If your undergraduate degree is in some subject other than law, one more year of study is required before your training starts to diverge. This gives you plenty of time to learn about what barristers and solicitors do, explore your own interests and aptitudes, and compare them with the ideal qualities of barristers and solicitors.
If you decide to embark on a career as a barrister, you must take a one-year Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC), while an aspiring solicitor must complete a one-year Legal Practice Course (LPC). An aspiring barrister then completes a year’s pupilage with one of the four barrister’s inns where they shadow a senior barrister. An aspiring solicitor, by contrast, must complete a two-year training contract at a law firm.
Personality and character
It is not only your abilities but your inclinations that matter. You are more likely to be successful and more likely to enjoy your job if you select a career that lines up with your personality and character. Following are some pointers:
Do you feel comfortable speaking in public? Scientific studies consistently indicate that most people fear public speaking more than they fear their own mortality. If this description applies to you, you are probably more suited to becoming a solicitor.
Do you prefer working independently or as part of a team? If you prefer working as part of a team, you may be more suited to becoming a solicitor; while if you prefer to work independently, you may be more suited to becoming a barrister.
Do you prefer to be self-employed, or is it important for you to work on a salary? The great majority of barristers are self-employed, while most solicitors work as part of a firm.
Making the decision
It usually pays to take time to make your decision between barrister and solicitor. There are many ways of “getting a taste” of working as a barrister or a solicitor, such as:
- Join your university law society and participate in mooting or pro bono activities;
- Consult with careers advisers at your university;
- Seek and informal tutor or mentor who can properly advise you on “what it’s like out there”;
- Apply to vacation schemes at solicitors’ forms as well as mini-pupillages at barristers’ chambers;
- Spend time in courts and tribunals observing the proceedings; and
- Use your own imagination and knowledge to discover or create alternatives not listed here.
Remember that even if you discover after qualifying that you have made the wrong choice, movement between the two professions is possible. The better commitment and legal skills you demonstrate, the longer these doors should stay open to you.
Next article: Becoming a barrister: the career path