Differences between a lawyer, a solicitor and a barrister

The term lawyer is a generic term used to describe anyone who is a Licensed Legal Practitioner qualified to give legal advice in one or more areas of law. Put simply, solicitors and barristers are both types of lawyer.

23 September 2016

Meeting with judges with gavel

What is a solicitor?

A solicitor is a qualified legal professional who provides expert legal advice and support to clients. A solicitor's clients can be individual people, groups, private companies or public sector organisations.

What does a solicitor do?

After taking instructions from clients, solicitors will advise on necessary courses of legal action depending on their areas of legal expertise. Most solicitors in the UK are primarily litigators, although many solicitors specialise in specific areas of law and some do their own advocacy cases.

Solicitors work directly with clients and although specific work activities will naturally depend on the solicitor’s area of expertise, they typically involve conversing with clients to establish their firm’s suitability to provide the necessary legal advice and services, taking the client’s instructions and then advising them on the law and legal issues relating to their particular case.

Solicitors deal with all the paperwork and communication involved with their clients' cases, such as writing documents, letters and contracts tailored to their client’s needs; ensuring the accuracy of legal advice and procedure, and preparing papers for court.

Solicitors will also negotiate with clients and opposing parties to secure agreed objectives, gather evidence, supervise the implementation of agreements, calculate claims for damages, compensation, loss of earnings, maintenance etc., and co-ordinate the work of all parties involved in the case. Their work ranges across the whole spectrum of legal work from high value commercial work to personal injury cases, family law issues such as children law and divorce, criminal law and wills probate and the general administration of estates.

Solicitors represent clients in disputes and represent them in court if necessary. In complex disputes however, solicitors will often instruct barristers or specialist advocates to appear in court on behalf of their clients.

If a case goes to court, it is unlikely that a solicitor will represent their client although certain solicitors can appear in court as advocates. Instead, a solicitor will generally refer the work to a barrister or specialist advocate for expert advice or to instruct them to appear in court to represent the client.

What is a barrister?

A barrister generally provides specialist legal advice and represents individual people and organisations in courts and tribunals and through written legal advice.

What does a barrister do?

In general, barristers in England & Wales are hired by solicitors to represent a case in court and only become involved once advocacy before a court is needed. The role of a barrister is to "translate and structure their client's view of events into legal arguments and to make persuasive representations which obtain the best possible result for their client."

Barristers usually specialise in particular areas of law such as criminal law, chancery law (estates and trusts), commercial law, entertainment law, sports law and common law; which includes family law and divorce, housing and personal injury law.

Although a barrister’s work will vary considerably depending on their level of expertise and the area of law in which they practice, they will typically advise clients on the law and the strength of their case and provide them with a written ‘opinion’. Barristers will advocate on behalf of their clients and the client’s solicitor in court, presenting their case, examining and cross-examining witnesses and giving reasons why the court should support the case. They will then negotiate settlements with the other side.

Out of the estimated 15,500 barristers practising in England & Wales, around 80% are self-employed. Other barristers are employed, for example, in solicitors' firms advising clients directly, or in agencies such as the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), or in specialist legal departments in industry, commerce, charities or central or local government; advising only the organisations they work for.

On the whole, self-employed barristers work in offices known as Chambers which they may share with other barristers. After completing their training, many gain permanent positions known as tenancy in a ‘set’ of Chambers.

As barristers within a chambers are all independent from one another they can often act on different sides in the same legal dispute. In contrast, solicitors working at the same law firm would be prevented from doing the same as there would be a conflict of interest.

Barristers are kept independent and prevented from picking and choosing the cases they want to work on by what is known as the Cab Rank Rule. The Cab Rank Rule prohibits a barrister from refusing a case if, for example, they found the nature of the case objectionable or if they think the client has unacceptable conduct, opinions or beliefs or simply due to the source of the funding.

Generally self-employed barristers cannot be instructed directly by clients as they first need to be briefed by a solicitor. However, the exception to this is if the barrister is a member of the Public Access Scheme which enables a member of the public to go directly to a barrister for legal advice or representation.

For more information call Slater and Gordon on 0330 107 5087 or contact us online and we'll be happy to help you.

All information was correct at the time of publication.

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