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What is the difference between a Solicitor and a Barrister?

by Charles Nwabueze
Reading Time: 8 minutes

In this blog, we will be examining who a solicitor is, who is a barrister, the differences between both, and which one is better for you.

Solicitor

A solicitor in the UK is a qualified legal practitioner who confers with clients, gives advice, drafts documents, conducts negotiations, prepares cases for trial, and retains barristers for advice on special matters or for advocacy (trial work) before the higher courts.

A solicitor provides specialist legal advice on contentious and non-contentious work to their clients in a variety of areas of law. They have a right to act in all courts as the agents for litigation or representatives of their clients, and they are deemed officers of the court.

Previously, their ability to litigate in courts was limited to magistrates’ courts, but now there are solicitor advocates who work in higher levels of the UK courts. As solicitors’ activities make up the greater part of the work of lawyers, solicitors are many times more numerous than barristers.

Barrister

A barrister is a qualified legal practitioner who engages in advocacy – representing, advocating and defending his/her clients in a court of a tribunal in the UK.

Barristers are usually called upon to give opinions or to draft documents, and many specialize in one practice area, although some may have a more general practice covering a variety of areas.

Barristers are known collectively as the bar, and it is from their ranks that the most important judicial appointments are made. To be a barrister, it is necessary to be a member of one of the four Inns of Court (Inner Temple, Middle Temple, Lincoln’s Inn, and Gray’s Inn).

The Difference in Work

The basic difference between barristers and solicitors is that a barrister mainly practises as an advocate representing clients in court, and a solicitor mainly performs their legal work in a law firm or office setting. However, there are exceptions to the general rule in both cases. For instance, one exception is that solicitors can obtain ‘rights of audience’, which allows them to represent clients in court. By virtue of this, solicitors can now perform many of the functions of a barrister up to a certain point.

Difference in Training 

The starting point for both pathways start with the completion of a qualifying law degree, or a non-law degree and a law conversion course, such as the GDL. After this, if you want to become a solicitor, you must complete a vocational 1-2 year course called the Legal Practice Course (LPC), followed by a two-year training contract.

Aspiring solicitors are now required (starting from 2021) to take the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) in order to qualify.

On the other hand, to qualify as a barrister, after completing your qualifying law degree, or a non-law degree and a law conversion course, such as the GDL, you’ll need to complete the vocational component of bar training known as the Bar Professional Training Course. After this, successful candidates will do a 1-year pupillage, which usually takes place in chambers.

Difference in Work

Most solicitors are employed by a law firm like Allen & Overy, or a commercial organization like NatWest as an ‘in-house’ solicitor. As an employee, they will receive a regular income, holiday pay, sick pay, benefits, and more. This line of work has attached to it a good level of job security.

On the other hand, most barristers are self-employed and work in chambers with other barristers with whom they share costs of accommodation and administrators.

They, however, are not always self-employed, as they can also be employed in-house at law firms and commercial organizations. With this exception, the uncertainty of getting constant income is taken away.

The difference in Public Access 

When people talk about going to see their lawyer, it is usually their solicitor that they are going to see. Members of the public are free to contact and instruct a solicitor. For barristers, this is not always the case. For cases that are deemed straightforward, the public can instruct a barrister if they go through the Public Access Scheme. In the UK, this scheme is available for all types of work done by barristers, with the exception of work funded outside of legal aid. In conclusion, barristers are less likely to come in contact with the public as much as solicitors.

Difference in Workwear

If there are two people in court who are lawyers, you can tell which one is the barrister in most cases by their work attire. Traditionally, a barrister in court was expected to wear traditional court attire in the form of a long black robe and wig. While this is not always the case in today’s practice, there is still a difference between both sides. For solicitors, such attire is not called for, a professional – smart dress code is fine.

Difference in Pay

For an aspiring solicitor working in commercial law, in his first year as a trainee his salary may be expected to be in the region of £40,000-£50,000; the second year could be £45,000-£55,000. In his first year as a newly qualified lawyer, he could receive payment in the region of £70,000-£160,000. For fledging barristers in commercial law, their pupillage may see them get £45,000-£70,000; in their first year of tenancy, they could get £70,000-£150,000; while their second year could see them pulling in £80,000-£200,000.

How to Decide Which One is better for you? 

The careers pathways open to law students are so diverse and extensive, but many students have difficulty deciding between the traditional streams: solicitor or barrister. With both roles being respectable roles in their own rights, with their own individual benefits, it is understandable why a law student may have trouble picking one. To be able to make an informed decision, there are two things we advocate you do first: take on work experience in the respective pathways and associate with qualified solicitors and barristers (we will discuss this in detail in the following paragraphs).

When you have done these tasks, asking yourself two fundamental questions will help you arrive at the right decision: what are your personal aspirations career-wise, and what are your personal strengths and skills.

Taking all these into the equation will help you arrive at the closest decision as to which one you’ll be best suited to?

Associate with Solicitors and Barristers

You are probably thinking about how in the world I would associate with a solicitor or barrister. I’m just a student, and they are busy people. But if you remember in one of our posts: on what law societies are and should you join them, we explained one of the benefits of law society is that it organizes networking events where you can associate with lawyers. Taking advantage of this benefit will help in your decision.

By networking with solicitors and barristers, you would be able to ask them why they chose their respective pathways. You could even go further by telling them you are struggling with making a decision as to which pathway is the right one – most lawyers will offer you the best advice possible.

With the exception of the networking events thrown out by law societies, your school will most likely organise a legal career fair where barristers, in-house barristers, solicitors, in-house solicitors, legal executives and more would be present. At such events, endeavour to take advantage of the opportunities presented to ask that different legal personnel as many questions as possible.

Work Experience

It’s all well and good, asking questions, and taking on research to aid you with your decision. But truth be told, nothing beats the lessons taught by work experience in a specific pathway. For solicitors, that would be a vacation scheme; for barristers, you would be talking about taking a mini-pupillage. Through work experience, you’ll be able to immerse yourself in the day to day life of a participant in the pathway you are aspiring to.

For example, through my vacation scheme, I discovered that  I did not enjoy doing most of my work in an office setting – just typing letters and calling clients about their cases; admittedly, this is not only what a solicitor does. Through my mini-pupillage, I found out I enjoyed the opportunity of travelling to different courts in different parts of the country to take part in the cases that the barrister I was assigned to was taking on.

Work experience is simply the best way to know if you are inclined to one stream or the other, or you even enjoy both.

When you have taken these two steps, you should then ask yourself the following questions.

What are my strengths and key skills?

Strong Advocacy Skill

When I was in a similar situation of having to choose, the first thing I noted about my mini-pupillage was that I visited courts regularly, not just one court, but in my 2 weeks of mini-pupillage, I visited the courts in different parts of the country. Another lesson I observed is that a good barrister needs to have excellent advocacy skills, to be able to talk confidently in public.

A barrister should be able to confidently speak to a crowd because, in most courtrooms, the cases are open to the public, and so, if you have an issue with public speaking, and are unwilling to improve, then you might have a real issue if you choose the barrister’s route.

For those with less than polished advocacy skills, they should consider the solicitor route not because it’s the lesser route, but because your work most of the time might involve you working from an office setting without having to step into the courtroom.

Self-Motivated

If you are one who needs an external stimulus to get you motivated, having a successful career as a barrister might be far-fetched. Remember that barristers are normally self-employed – although from time to time they might be employed in-house by an organization. Yes, self-motivation is necessary for all lawyers, but more so in the role of a barrister – where if you do not get up and build your clientele you won’t get paid.

Research and Analytical Skills

All lawyers need to be able to research and proffer solutions through an extensive analysis of the problem, but these two skills are arguably needed more by solicitors. For the average Joe, their first point of call with a lawyer would be with a solicitor. So, as a solicitor, you should have the ability to effectively research your client’s issues and proffer the necessary solutions within a reasonable time.

Collaboration

Considering that barristers are usually self-employed, they could be described as more independent creatures than their solicitor counterparts. Solicitors need to be more collaborative because they are employed by law firms and assigned to practice area teams. A good chunk of the work done by solicitors will be done with the help of their colleagues. So, if you see yourself as more of an independent being, you now know what pathway will better suit you.

Career Aspirations

What sort of career you want for you matters in your final decision. Do you want to earn a lot of money in your career? If yes, then would be a solicitor pay more than a barrister’s career?

In the City of London, commercial solicitors and barristers are some of the highest-paid professionals in the country. If we further narrow it down, a city solicitor is more likely to get more money than his barrister counterpart because his career progression is assured at the firm, and is usually not dependent on his getting clients, unlike a barrister.

Furthermore, for a lawyer – solicitor or barrister – to be getting loads of money, he/she must be spending most of their life on the job. Thus, you have to ask, do you want a good balance of work and life? If so, then you might be looking at being a barrister, since they work generally on the number of clients they want to get.

Either way, you choose, remember that no decision you make in regards to this is unchangeable.

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Charles is a writer, practising lawyer and personal trainer who loves learning and developing himself. He graduated from Middlesex University, London with eight first-class grades in the second and third years of his law degree, and received a postgraduate offer from Cambridge University. He loves strength training, boxing and encouraging people to succeed in their pursuits (legal ones)

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