Lawyers, solicitors and barristers


Differences between a lawyer, a solicitor and a barrister

When looking for a lawyer to handle your case, you may be unsure of whether you need the help of a solicitor or a barrister. While the term ‘lawyer’ refers to both, there are still some distinct differences between what a solicitor and a barrister can help you with.

06 March 2023

What is a lawyer?

The term ‘lawyer’ hasn’t actually got a defined meaning in UK law. 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.

A solicitor and a barrister could both be considered a ‘lawyer’ in the UK.

If you’ve grown up watching legal dramas, and haven’t had much exposure to UK law, your understanding of what a ‘lawyer’ does may be that they're the person who shouts "objection!" in court, defending their client with legal prowess. However, typical duties of a lawyer are far more varied than that.

In the UK, a lawyer’s day-to-day duties will differ depending on whether they’re a solicitor or a barrister, and what area of the law they specialise in. Their duties can include:

  • Providing legal advice to individual clients or organisations
  • Writing legal contracts and agreements
  • Preparing evidence for court
  • Representing clients in a trial (if they’re a barrister or solicitor)

What is a solicitor?

In the UK, a solicitor is a qualified legal professional who provides expert legal advice and support to clients. Their clients can be individual people, groups, private companies or public sector organisations.

What does a solicitor do?

Most solicitors in the UK are primarily litigators - someone who specialises in taking legal action against an individual or organisation. However, there are many solicitors in England and Wales who undertake transactional work or non-contentious work.

Many solicitors in the UK specialise in specific areas of law. For example, if you need legal advice on divorce, then a family law solicitor is best equipped to handle your case due to their specific experience. This would differ them from a medical negligence solicitor, as their service areas are uniquely separate, and naturally, you're going to want a solicitor who's legal expertise specifically relates to your case.

Who do solicitors work with?

Solicitors work directly with clients, and will establish their firm’s suitability to provide the necessary legal advice and services for the client’s matter.

They take instructions from the client and then advise them on the law and legal issues relating to their particular case.

How will a solicitor help me?

Naturally, a solicitor's day-to-day work activities will differ depending on their specialism, but here’s a general overview of what areas a solicitor can help you with.

Paperwork - Trying to navigate the paperwork that comes with a legal case would be exhausting alone and without legal expertise.

A solicitor steps in and deals with all paperwork and communication involved with your case - ensuring the accuracy of legal advice and procedure, and preparing papers for court. They will help with writing documents, letters, as well as contracts.

Negotiation - Solicitors will sit down and negotiate with you and opposing parties to secure agreed objectives. They will aid with:

  • Gathering evidence
  • Supervising the implementation of agreements
  • Calculate claims for damages, compensation, loss of earnings, etc.
  • Coordinate the work of all parties involved in the case

A solicitor’s work ranges across the whole spectrum of legal work, from high value commercial work to personal injury cases.

Will my solicitor represent me in court?

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?

The role of the Barrister is to provide advice to clients on their case in regards to the law. Barristers only typically become involved with a case when it has gone to court where they will act as the client’s representation.

What does a barrister do?

In general, barristers in England & Wales are hired by solicitors to represent a case in court.

The role of a barrister is to help convey their client's view of events into legal arguments to the opposition, and make persuasive representations to get the best possible result for their client.

Barristers, much like solicitors, usually specialise in particular areas of law. Their specialisms can vary in a range of law areas, from criminal law to sports law.

How will a barrister help me?

While it’s dependent on what area of the law they practise and their level of expertise, barristers 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. They will:

  • Present their case
  • Examine and cross-examine witnesses
  • Give reasons why the court should support the case
  • Negotiate settlements with the other side

What areas of the law do barristers or solicitors assist with?

Both solicitors and barristers can have different specialisms within the law depending on their field of expertise.

Areas a barrister may specialise in:

  • Criminal law
  • Chancery law (estate and trust)
  • Commercial law
  • Entertainment law
  • Sports law
  • Common law (including family law, divorce, housing and personal injury)

Areas a solicitor may specialise in:

These lists are not exhaustive, and both solicitors and barristers can specialise in the same area as eachother. This is just to give you an idea of the types of areas barristers and solicitors can practice in.

Both barristers and solicitors can specialise in more than one practice area but typically, most lawyers will specialise in one.

Do I need a barrister or solicitor?

Really, it depends on what area of the law you need assistance with, and whether your case will go to court.

A solicitor is best to seek legal advice from if:

  • You’re looking for business legal advice
  • You need legal documents written up (e.g. a contract)
  • You want a pair of expert eyes on a legal document to make sure it complies with the law
  • You need negotiation advice

You’re more likely going to need advice from a barrister if:

  • You need representation in court
  • Your solicitor refers you to a barrister as your case is headed to court

A barrister can assist you with business legal advice as well, like a solicitor can, although you’d more likely start with a solicitor, unless the matter was relevant for a barrister to be involved with and cast their opinion.

What are the key differences between a solicitor and a barrister?

To round up; we’ve outlined the key differences between solicitors and barristers:

  • You’ll start your case with a solicitor - You’ll most likely start your case with a solicitor, where they’ll discuss your case, potentially prepare evidence, and handle legal documentation. A barrister is only typically involved if your case goes to court and you need representation.
  • A barrister represents you in court - While a solicitor can sometimes represent you in court, they will more likely appoint a barrister to represent you depending on the complexities of the case.
  • Solicitors are regulated by the SRA and Barristers are regulated by the BSB - (apart from direct access barristers), and they perform different functions throughout a case.
  • More barristers are self-employed - Out of the estimated 15,500 barristers practising in England & Wales, around 80% are self-employed.

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.

Slater and Gordon are on hand to help you

Whether your case requires a solicitor or a barrister, Slater and Gordon can provide you with expert legal advice.

Call us on 0330 107 5087 or contact us online and we'll be happy to help you.

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