The Legal Profession in England & Wales

What is the difference between barristers and solicitors? Who does what? Legal English UK writer and researcher Chris Mitchell discusses the English Legal Profession.

The Legal Profession

Unusually, the UK has two separate branches of its legal profession: barristers and solicitors. Both groups tend to do the same type of work; focused mainly around advocacy in court, paperwork, and advising clients but while a barrister's workload is more heavily geared towards acting as a representative of their client in court, a solicitor will usually spend more of their time in the office.

What do barristers do?  

Barristers are the lawyers typically characterised in British television shows because their work strikes producers as more interesting and sexier than solicitors. In certain courts, barristers will wear the traditional wigs and gowns that you are no doubt familiar with. There are around 15,000 barristers working today.

They are hired to represent defendants and plaintiffs in higher courts such as the Crown Court and the Supreme Court.  They are usually self-employed and have to take work based on the "taxi rank" principle, i.e. they take the first job that comes up.

It takes a considerable amount of time and effort to become a barrister as you have to follow the traditions of one of the Inns of Court to join. There are four Inns of Court and every barrister is a member of the Bar Council.  Many people believe that barristers are highly-paid "fat cats" (rich, fat gentlemen) where the reality is somewhat different, with 60% of barristers earning around the average wage of the UK.

What do solicitors do?

There are estimated to be around 170,000 solicitors practising within the United Kingdom. The profession has tripled in size in the last thirty years and politicians have argued that there are too many. They are needed, however.

 

Solicitors are a person's first point of contact with a lawyer; so if you wish to buy a house, have a death in the family or are in trouble with the police then you will visit your local solicitor. Every town and city in the UK has law firms with teams of solicitors.  If the firm is small, a solicitor might work in several fields, but larger firms are split into departments.  

Solicitors have typically only been permitted to attend certain courts such as the Magistrate's Court and County Court. This rule is changing as more solicitors are gaining the right to speak in higher courts.  

How do they work together?  

Solicitors and barristers can work together in several ways. Let's say that you have visited your local solicitor for help with a legal issue of some sort. The solicitor might have the knowledge and resources to advise you, but if the case is complex then he will need a second opinion. In this instance, he might request that a barrister provide him with written legal advice to confirm the law on the matter.

Barristers and solicitors frequently work together on court cases. Take criminal law, for example. If your client commits fraud, the police will interview him with his solicitor present. The solicitor will advise, write letters, attend lower courts and generally manage the case. When it comes to the trial, help will probably be needed from an expert barrister. This will be someone who has worked in fraud trials for many years and who is a skilled advocate.

With the increasing number of barristers working inside multinational companies and solicitors acting as advocates in higher courts, there is less of a distinction between the two professions. However, conensus seems to be that the UK is still a long way off from having one universal legal profession as the two tiers seem to work well together.

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