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Solicitor vs lawyer: What’s the difference?

Estimated reading time: 6 mins.

Carrie Tennick, March 15, 2019

Lawyer, solicitor, barrister – in the UK, it can be challenging to work out what a legal practitioner’s job title means.

So we’ve put together this guide to help you identify which professional is the right one for your needs.

What is a lawyer?

There are numerous roles in the legal profession, from mediator to paralegal to judge. But when we see ‘lawyer’ being used, it’s likely going to be referring to someone who can practise the law – usually a solicitor or barrister.

These are two different types of lawyers, who have had different training and experience. There is no hierarchy, with neither solicitors nor barristers acting as more senior. They carry out different roles and have different responsibilities.

So what is the difference between a solicitor and a barrister?

What is a solicitor?

If you require the services of a lawyer, it’s likely you’ll need a solicitor. These are legal professionals who have finished their training contracts and usually qualified into a specialism, from corporate and commercial to employment law to personal injury – and everything in between.

It means that at milestone life events, such as buying a house, writing a will or getting divorced, you’ll deal with a solicitor. Although it is possible to complete these activities without a lawyer, it’s advisable that a solicitor advises you as they understand the intricacies of the law and what needs to be done to adhere to it.

Solicitors take instruction from clients, advising them on the best course of action for their specific circumstances. As a result, they typically have direct contact with their clients. These clients can be individuals, groups of people or organisations – in both the public and private sector.

What do solicitors do?

Among their typical duties are providing legal advice to clients, researching cases and laws, representing clients and drafting legal documents of all types, including contracts.

Solicitors tend to be employed by private practice firms, large organisations and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). They can also be employed by the government or local authorities. Although solicitors carry out most of their work in their offices, they also travel to see clients. So if you take on the services of a solicitor who isn’t based nearby, they will be able to make the trip to see you if necessary.

These lawyers are regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority.

A large part of the work solicitors do is holding negotiations between people or organisations that are trying to reach an agreement.

Solicitors are less likely than barristers to represent clients in court. They often refer cases on to a barrister or specialist advocate. However, some solicitors are able to appear in court as advocates. These are specially qualified lawyers, who have passed an assessment to achieve Higher Rights of Audience.

What is a barrister?

According to the Law Society, barristers are “legal advisers and courtroom advocates”. They present legal arguments to judges, magistrates and juries.

These are the legal practitioners you’ve probably seen on television, cross-examining witnesses and attempting to win court cases on behalf of their client. They tend to work on high-profile and criminal court cases.

They usually have little direct contact with the public. It is often the job of solicitors to instruct them, having previously dealt with the client directly. When a solicitor does instruct them, a barrister then appears in court. Only barristers or qualified solicitor advocates can represent clients in the UK’s higher courts, such as Crown Court, High Court and the Supreme Court.

It is possible for individuals to instruct barristers without dealing with a solicitor first. This is due to the Public Access Scheme, which was implemented in 2004. After being instructed, a barrister may decide that your case could benefit from a solicitor’s services. In order to take on Public Access work, barristers must complete a training programme.

Although the Public Access Scheme may reduce costs for clients – in that they won’t have to pay for a solicitor as well as a barrister – they will have to carry out a certain amount of the work themselves. This includes tasks like issuing proceedings and instructing expert witnesses.

What do barristers do?

Barristers have been called to the bar and are regulated by the Bar Standards Board (BSB). The BSB dictates how barristers must act and work. They are held to a certain standard of conduct, including keeping client affairs confidential and maintaining independence. Barristers are specialist legal advisers, having been trained to advise on the strengths and weaknesses of cases.

These lawyers work out of Chambers, which they may share with other barristers. The majority of barristers in England and Wales are self-employed (roughly 80%, according to the Bar Council). Meanwhile, employed barristers typically work for organisations like solicitors’ firms, the CPS, local authorities, the government, human rights organisations, the armed forces and private companies.

What is Queen’s Counsel?

A small number of senior barristers become Queen’s Counsel (QC). This is known as taking ‘silk’, as they wear silk gowns when they appear in court.

They can charge higher fees and work on more complicated cases. Lawyers have to apply to be appointed as QC, making it an elite group.

Solicitors can also apply to become QC, but there are fewer of them. This is because in order to become QC, lawyers typically need experience of significant court cases. As barristers have the lion’s share of these cases, they make up the majority of QC.

Lawyer vs solicitor vs barrister

Lawyers in the UK have gone through extensive education and training. This means you can be confident you’ll receive quality representation, regardless of what you need it for.

With so many aspects of everyday life requiring the expertise of a lawyer, you may find that you need one at some point. Your specific circumstances will dictate whether you require the services of a solicitor or barrister.

We can put you in touch with the right lawyer for you. Just give us a call on the number at the top of the screen or click here to start your enquiry.

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