In England and Wales, a solicitor is one of two types of qualified lawyers – the other being barristers. Solicitors generally provide day-to-day legal advice on a range of issues (the exact details depending heavily on factors such as your chosen employer and specialist practice area), while barristers are more specialised in advocacy (e.g. arguing litigious cases in court). A number of other differences do exist, but the key difference relates to this divide between behind-the-scenes legal work and more public courtroom performances.
The only difference between a solicitor and a lawyer is where the terms originate from. ‘Solicitor’ is more of a British term, while ‘lawyer’ is more of an American term.
In the UK, ‘lawyer’ is not used to describe a specific role within the legal system, but is used as an umbrella term to cover anyone that works as a legal practitioner. In fact, the term ‘lawyer’ has no defined meaning in UK law, according to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) – the regulating body for solicitors.
A solicitor’s role is to take instructions from clients, which can include individuals, groups, private companies and public sector organisations, and advise them on actions they can take from a legal standpoint.
In the event of a legal matter going to a tribunal or Court, a solicitor can instruct a barrister to act on behalf of a client – the responsibility of a solicitor is to prepare the case for a barrister. A solicitor advocate, who has Rights of Audience, can represent clients in the UK’s higher Courts in the same way that a barrister can.
To learn more about the differences between solicitors and barristers, see our dedicated guide.
Solicitors work very closely with clients and are often the first point of contact for people in need of legal advice.
The work of a solicitor can also be split into contentious legal work and non-contentious legal work. Contentious work usually revolves around some kind of dispute that needs to be resolved (it might result in litigation, or could be mediated through arbitration, etc). Non-contentious legal work is more advisory in nature – for example drafting the agreements between two companies who are looking to merge (also known as ‘transactional’ work).
On a day-to-day basis, a solicitor’s role can vary, involving tasks such as:
Solicitors do not typically have the right to represent clients in the higher courts (such as the High Court in the UK). Instead, they work in conjunction with barristers to represent clients in court proceedings by drafting legal documents such as contracts and wills and providing legal advice.
Practice area choice is very important for aspiring solicitors to consider. This is essentially your area of expertise as a lawyer, and your actual day-to-day work can vary massively based on which practice area you work within. Our full guide to practice areas includes further detail on the specifics, but here are a few common (and varied) practice areas to consider:
As you can imagine, the differences between the work of a family lawyer (working on, say, a difficult divorce case involving child custody) and a tax lawyer (working on, say, the tax implications of two multinational companies merging) are very significant.
Some of the factors which might impact a solicitor’s choice of practice area includes interest in the work, salaries, and work-life balance.
Solicitors can work across a number of different types of organisations, some of which (the most popular) are covered below:
As already discussed, many aspiring solicitors will apply to law firms for vacation schemes (and thereafter training contracts). They will then go on to work at the firm if successful.
Law firms are specialised businesses which clients come to for legal services. You will often have relatively clearly defined roles (often delineated by practice area), a clear hierarchy with obvious career trajectory (e.g. trainee, associate, senior associate, partner), and high salaries.
The variation between different law firms is huge. At one end of the scale, Magic Circle and elite US law firms offer huge salaries, multinational client work, long hours and intense cultures, while at the other end high street solicitor firms will offer much more favourable hours, more personally-engaging subject matters, but lower salaries.
In-house solicitors are those that sit within an organisation’s legal department. For example, you could be a lawyer for a media organisation such as the BBC or ITV. Your work is likely to cross many practice areas (especially at smaller organisations) – for example, you might be approving contracts for your presenters one day and protecting one of your show’s logos against IP infringement the next. Roles are often less clearly defined via a hierarchy, and this move can result in a pay-cut at times. The top lawyers in-house (usually solicitors) are known as General Counsel.
Some solicitors will work within the public sector – that is, carrying out legal work on behalf of the government. This will often be within a certain area of government, e.g. the Treasury or the Department for Education. Some of this work will often go into Public Law territory. Working hours tend to be more favourable than private sector work, but the salaries are usually significantly lower.
The route to qualification as a solicitor in England and Wales can seem complex at times, especially considering the flexibility in possible pathways.
The traditional route is as follows:
There are many important details to note here.
First off, the SQE is replacing an older model of examination known as the LPC (Legal Practice Course). With this change comes a lot of flexibility around the qualifying process as whole, including:
Second, going to university is no longer strictly necessary. Instead, a range of organisations now offer solicitor apprenticeship pathways after A Levels instead (as part of which you gain your QWE and complete the SQE exams).
In order to help them along the process, many aspiring solicitors will apply to sponsoring organisations (most often, but not always, law firms) for something known as a training contract. Usually this process involves a first application to a vacation scheme (the solicitor industry’s term for an internship), after which training contracts may be awarded to the best candidates. Training contracts usually include:
Note that larger firms will tend to pay more in terms of tuition fees and maintenance costs (often 100% of the former and around £10-15,000 per year of the latter), and these are usually structured as grants rather than loans (meaning they are non-repayable).
Solicitor salary levels in the UK vary according to the area of law in which they work, and several other factors, including:
See our dedicated solicitor salaries guide for more specific income levels.
Solicitors are regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA). The industry body also regulates law firms and non-legal professionals within law firms. The SRA has a specific code of conduct that all solicitors must adhere to in order to best serve the interests of their clients and the public.
Individual solicitors or law firms found to be in breach of the SRA’s code of conduct could be subject to disciplinary action. The SRA website provides more information.
In short, there are a range of factors to consider when considering a career as a solicitor. The impact that some factors will have on your life, such as work-life balance and salary, are highly subjective. Other points, such as the currently qualification route, are important for everyone to understand equally. Overall, a career as a solicitor can be both demanding and rewarding.
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