In the legal system of England and Wales, both solicitors and barristers are legal professionals who have distinct roles and responsibilities.
The main difference is that a barrister defends people in Court through effective public speaking and advocacy, while a solicitor does legal work outside Court. However, there are some exceptions to this distinction.
For example, more solicitors are undertaking qualifications to become a solicitor advocate. A solicitor advocate is a legal professional who is fully qualified as a solicitor, but has the same ‘rights of audience as a barrister’.
A solicitor is a qualified legal practitioner who can take instructions from clients and advise on necessary courses of legal action. Solicitors may be responsible for handling legal matters such as providing legal advice, drafting contracts, and negotiating settlements.
In the event of a Court case, a solicitor will draft legal documents. Solicitors provide clients with specialist legal advice on a wide variety of legal matters, which are divided into contentious and non-contentious cases.
Solicitors usually work in law firms or in-house legal departments and often have direct contact with clients. Clients can range from individuals and groups to public sector organisations and private companies.
Barristers tend to specialise in courtroom advocacy and litigation, drafting legal pleas, giving expert legal opinions and researching the theory and history of law. They are responsible for presenting cases in court, arguing legal points and cross-examining witnesses. A barrister wears a wig and gown in Court.
Barristers have to follow certain rules and regulations when practising, as outlined in the Bar Standards Board (BSB) Handbook. The rules cover what is expected of barristers, including their core duties, which features a list of the most important things a barrister should and should not do.
Equally, the rules cover how barristers should conduct themselves, what they can do when carrying out their work, and how they will be disciplined should they break code of conduct rules.
A solicitor represents and defends the legal interests of clients and can provide legal counsel in many situations. For example:
The work of a solicitor can be divided into:
Contentious legal work: which involves helping to settle disputes between two or more parties – typically in a Court or tribunal.
Non-contentious legal work: which can involve handling the legal requirements of a client’s business or personal matter. For example, managing a company merger or drafting a will.
The duties of a solicitor can include, but are not limited to:
A barrister is often hired by a solicitor to represent a case in Court. Barristers only get involved in a legal case when appearing before Court is necessary. A barrister pleads a case on behalf of a client and the client’s solicitor.
The role of a barrister is to specialise in Court advocacy and be an independent source of legal advice for clients. Most barristers are self-employed and working in chambers, but also work for government departments such as the Crown Prosecution Service or the Government Legal Profession.
Employed barristers tend to work for private organisations, such as the in-house legal departments of charities and companies. At a more senior level, an employed barrister could be involved in the development of legal policy and strategy.
Many barristers specialise in one area of law, although some may have a more general practice covering a wide range of legal disciplines. The duties of a barrister depend on a range of factors, including the area of practice, but the key role of a barrister is to solve problems and resolve disputes.
The duties of a barrister can include, but are not limited to:
A barrister’s area of practice will determine the nature of their duties. For example:
Following the completion of a qualifying law degree, or a non-law degree and a law conversion course, such as the GDL, you need to make the decision as to whether you wish to practise as a solicitor or barrister because this is where the road splits.
To qualify as a solicitor in England and Wales, you will have to take the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE). Previously, aspiring solicitors would have passed the LPC – and you may still be able to choose between the two.
First, you must obtain a qualifying law degree (this could be an LLB at university, or a non-law degree at university followed by the PGDL conversion course). Note that this is also possible without going to university – via a solicitor apprenticeship (most commonly the Level 7 apprenticeship after A-Levels), a relatively new offering.
Candidates then take the SQE exams (SQE1 and SQE2), and finally must gain two years of QWE (qualifying work experience), which can now be obtained at any point throughout the process. Throughout this process, aspiring solicitors will usually be searching for training contracts – essentially a scholarship from a law firm paying for your law school costs with a promise of work experience attached. These are typically available from around the second year of university onwards. If secured after starting law school, the firm may reimburse your costs.
It’s also possible to train as a solicitor via a paid solicitor apprenticeship if you have A-Levels. An apprenticeship includes SQE1 and SQE2 assessments. Plus, an apprenticeship offers on-the-job experience, which counts as QWE.
A graduate solicitor apprenticeship is an option if you already have a university degree.
Barristers must complete a qualifying law degree (or, again, a non-law degree followed by a conversion course like the PGDL), then complete the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC). No barrister apprenticeship routes currently exist.
Securing funding for law school as a barrister is often notoriously difficult in comparison to the solicitor route, and many rely on scholarships from the law schools themselves (or sometimes Inns of Courts) to get by. After completing the BPTC, graduates must secure ‘pupillage’ in a barristers’ chambers, during which they gain practical experience and develop their skills. Finally, they must be ‘called to the Bar’ by one of the four Inns of Court, which allows them to the qualify and practice as a barrister.
To qualify as a barrister, you must complete three key areas of training:
Barristers and solicitors have different roles within the legal system.
Solicitors are usually the first point of contact for potential clients, and their work is often relatively broad (although can become more specialised in certain firms/practice areas). Their work often involves tasks such as legal research, drafting documents, and liaising back and forth with clients (a key part of their work that differentiates them from barristers). Most solicitor work will fall across either the contentious/non-contentious (or alternatively litigation/advisory) divide.
Barristers, on the other hand, are more specialised types of lawyers who are usually ‘instructed’ by solicitors to represent clients in court. They are typically involved in complex cases including criminal cases, or public law related matters such as judicial review proceedings. They are often specialised into more specific areas, such as sports law or IP. Their day-to-day work typically involves less ‘behind-the-scenes’ legwork than solicitors – instead, barristers are focused on their abilities to present a case convincingly to a court. Barristers also have a unique role in our legal system – the ‘cab-rank’ rule. This means that barristers must accept any brief or instruction they receive, as long as they are able to. The rule was designed, on moral grounds, to ensure that everyone would be able to access legal representation.
Most solicitors are employed by a law firm or commercial organisation as an ‘in-house’ solicitor. As an employee, they will receive a regular income, holiday pay, sick pay, benefits etc.
Barristers, on the other hand, tend to be self-employed and affiliated with a chambers, which they share with other self-employed barristers. With self-employment comes greater uncertainty in relation to income and during any holidays or sick leave, a barrister will not be paid.
Some barristers, however, are employed ‘in-house’ at law firms and large commercial organisations (such as the Government Legal Service), which takes away the uncertainty associated with being self-employed and brings with it regular income and benefits.
In terms of work patterns, solicitors and barristers can each work long, unconventional hours. Evening and weekend work is not uncommon for a barrister or solicitor.
A solicitor can be contacted and instructed at any time by the general public. This is not true of barristers. A barrister is only available to members of the public via the Public Access Scheme – if a case is straightforward.
Public access is available in all types of work that barristers can do, except for work funded by Legal Aid. If a case involves a child, public access is unlikely to be available.
Barristers and solicitors also have very different relationships, and extents of contact, with clients. Solicitors have the direct contact with clients and are responsible for building and maintaining relationships with them. Their role is often one involving ongoing contact with repeat clients – for example a bank may have a relationship point of contact at a certain law firm, where they will repeatedly drop in for legal advice over the course of many years.
Barristers are typically instructed by solicitors rather than clients themselves. The aforementioned bank may contact their solicitors to suggest they need specialist legal advice in an upcoming case, at which point the solicitors will often call a barrister and bring them onto the team. Barristers often therefore work on a case-by-case basis and have less direct contact with clients. However, they will often maintain relationships with solicitors at law firms in their practice area.
As already highlighted by the types of work required, barristers and solicitors require different skillsets. Barristers spend a great deal of their time in front of courts – they therefore need to be excellent at public speaking, and persuasive in their abilities to cross-examine witnesses, appeal to a judge or jury, etc. Solicitors, in the other hand, need excellent reading, writing and research skills to prepare for cases. Solicitors also need to be personable in order to maintain relationships with clients, which the primarily what the solicitor model is based on. Both require strong academic capabilities and an excellent work ethic. Consider our quiz on which route best suits you.
Solicitors are often employed by a law firm, and thus are required to work a fixed number of hours (often with typical billable hours targets per year). At top city firms, these working hours tend to be very intense (with some newly qualified solicitors clocking up 12+ hour days).
Barristers, on the other hand, are usually self-employed (although not always – some government departments and large businesses may retain barristers if they will use them regularly). As a result, barristers are often thought to have better work-life balance (in other words, more flexibility over when and where you work), but this will vary based on how much of a workload you take on.
The work experience opportunities available to solicitors and barristers is very different.
As an aspiring solicitor, you could gain experience through schemes such as:
As an aspiring barrister, you could gain experience through
Don’t forget, there are other opportunities if you’re unsure which pathway you’d like to focus on. Learn more in our work experience guide.
Both solicitors and barristers earn significantly above the average UK salary of around £30,000, but the factors playing into your salary are huge.
A solicitor’s salary varies depending on their area of specialisation and years of experience. For example, a solicitor can expect an average starting salary of £34,700 – but the highest salaries can exceed £140,000. The average amount a solicitor earns is £55,200.
Trainee solicitors at a top city firm may earn £50,000, rising to above £100,000 on qualification, and reaching anywhere up to seven figures by partnership. Many of these numbers are essentially halved for high street solicitors (reasons why – often relating to work-life balance – will be discussed later on in this article).
A Barrister can expect an average starting salary of £40,300 – but the highest salaries can exceed £200,000. The average amount a barrister earns is £89,200.
Barristers are often self-employed, so their career progression is much less simple to predict – they bill at their own personal rate, which could lead their salaries to be anywhere between a trainee solicitor’s salary and that of a top partner. Criminal barristers tend to earn far less than those working in corporate areas (which has been the subject of recent strikes in Britain). Barristers can even out-earn solicitors (a recent Manchester City case saw Lord Pannick reportedly charging £10,000 per hour for his services – roughly the same as star midfielder Kevin De Bruyne on the pitch).
We go into more detail about the difference between salaries for barristers and solicitors in our guide.
Barristers and solicitors also have different fee structures. It’s important to know the business of law if you’re interested in pursuing a career there. Solicitors usually bill via time (known as the ‘billable hour’ model). Other extras may include a no-win fee reduction, or a fee cap – all of these factors are often decided by more senior solicitors (e.g. Partners), and depend on the specific client and work involved.
Barristers often have daily rates instead of billing by the hour. An upfront cost is often requested before starting on work, and then payments follow each day after that.
In short, while barristers and solicitors are both highly trained legal professionals, these two career paths are actually quite different in a number of ways. Weighing up the pros and cons of factors such as work-life balance or salaries is ultimately a personal decision, and one that may be best decided by considering your own personality and skillset. Both careers do offer a great deal of satisfaction for aspiring lawyers if chosen (and managed) correctly.
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