The word lawyer is one that is used in a very general way to refer to a legal practitioner who is qualified to provide legal advice.
That legal advice could be in any area of law. Solicitors and barristers are both considered to be lawyers although they perform different roles and functions.
What is a Lawyer?
In the UK, whilst there are significant differences between solicitors and barristers, there is no definition of a ‘lawyer’ in UK law. It is more of a generic term that is used by people who practise law. There are two main types of lawyers in the UK:
Legal Executives also fall under the umbrella term ‘lawyer’ as they also provide legal services. Solicitors, barristers, and legal executives provide advice on various areas of law to their clients. Clients can be individuals or companies who need information about their activities or problems.
There are some key differences between solicitors and barristers which we will explore below.
What is a Barrister?
A barrister provides expert legal advice and represents people, companies, and organisations in tribunals and courts. Barristers provide legal written and verbal advice, and they tend to be hired by solicitors to present a case in court. In most cases, the solicitor will prepare most of the legal paperwork and information needed in relation to a case, and the barrister will then be hired to advocate in the court.
Barristers are specialists in their field of law, this could be property law, family law, criminal law, commercial law, litigation, or personal injury law. The barrister’s role is to present legal arguments in favour of their client in court and try and get the best result for them. In court, barristers are involved in presenting the case, cross-examining witnesses, and trying to persuade the court to make a decision based on the facts and arguments they have presented.
Barristers advise clients on the strengths of their case, and usually, they will provide what is known as a ‘legal opinion’. This is where they offer their professional opinion on the merits of the case.
Sometimes solicitors will ask barristers for their legal opinion on certain matters that arise and where they feel they need specialist advice. There are approximately 16,000 barristers in England and Wales, and over 80% of them are self-employed. The remaining 20% of barristers work within legal teams, or with agencies like the Crown Prosecution Service.
Barristers who are self-employed work in special offices that are known as Chambers. Usually, there will be other barristers who also work in the Chambers. A key difference to solicitors working in the same firm is that barristers working in Chambers can work on the same dispute—on different sides.
As barristers in Chambers work independently of each other they can work on the same cases. Solicitors working in one law firm cannot work on both sides of the same case as this is deemed to be a conflict of interest.
What is a Solicitor?
Solicitors tend to work in law firms or legal teams and they are instructed by clients. Someone who has become a solicitor advises their clients on various aspects of law, working directly with them to provide advice as and when needed.
Solicitors will deal with all aspects of the case at hand, including:
- taking instructions
- communicating with clients
- preparing documentation
- gathering information and statements
- advising the client
- negotiate with other parties
- instructing barristers (where required)
- preparation for court
In cases where there is a dispute, some solicitors do represent their clients in court. However, in more complex cases solicitors will instruct barristers to take the case to court and advocate on behalf of the client. If a solicitor has ‘a right of audience’ this means they are able to represent their client in court, however for cases that are complex and contentious solicitors will usually instruct a barrister.
In England and Wales, solicitors are represented by the Law Society.
Differences between a Barrister and Solicitor
One of the key differences between a barrister and solicitor, is that they qualify in very different ways. A solicitor will need to undertake and complete the Legal Practice Course after their degree, and then complete a 2-year training contract with a law firm. Barristers head to the Bar after their degree and they then need to complete a pupillage in chambers before qualifying as a barrister.
Another key difference is that most barristers are self-employed, whilst most solicitors are employees. For solicitors this means regular income, paid annual leave, sick leave, and job security. Barristers have more uncertainty when it comes to income as they are not paid a fixed income every month, their pay varies depending on how many clients they have. Both solicitors and barristers needs to be covered by professional indemnity insurance—whether through their employer or by arranging their own policy, if self employed.
Also, for most people, it is very easy to find and instruct a solicitor, but not everyone will want to go straight to a barrister for advice. Although barristers can be contacted directly via the Public Access Scheme, they tend to be instructed by solicitors who represent members of the public.