Barrister vs Solicitor – what’s the difference?

We’ve got another guest post for you today from Jason Mbakwe, an Associate at Morrison & Foerster LLP. In this detailed piece, Jason outlines some of the key differences between the work of a barrister and solicitor, and some of the key things to think about if you’re interested in going down either of these routes….

When I was younger, I was a combination of argumentative, stubborn and eerily eloquent. It seemed natural then that I would go on to be a lawyer. Watching TV court room dramas (mainly based in the US) caused me to believe that the majority of my life as a lawyer would be spent between talking to my clients and arguing in court. It wasn’t till I was around 16 years old that I realised that those two facets of a lawyer’s work are largely dealt with by separate professionals in the UK legal system – solicitors and barristers. As I felt my skills were more suited to presentation and advocacy, I leaned towards becoming a barrister and headed down that path until my final years of university. Undertaking work experience in both barristers’ chambers and a firm of solicitors helped in changing my mind to become a solicitor, but having the differences of the two roles explained to me also helped a great deal.

Essentially, the work of barristers can be broken down into three main areas:

  • representing others in court
  • providing expert advice on specialised and complicated areas of law
  • drafting documents for court

In all but exceptional cases, barristers are engaged by solicitors, who are the ones usually directly engaged by a client. Criminal barristers predominantly spend their time arguing in court, whereas commercial barristers are likely to find themselves advising and writing opinions on complex legal questions. It is for this expertise that solicitors engage barristers, and alongside the skills of advocacy and persuasive argument that we traditionally associate with court room lawyers, barristers are often asked to provide opinions on the merits of litigation. In the UK, approximately 80% of barristers are self-employed, referred to as the “independent Bar”. However, these barristers rarely practise alone and organise themselves in “sets”, with each barrister a “tenant” and contributing to cost of shared premises, managers, clerks and administrators. As they are not paid a salary, barristers usually organise their finances through an accountant, and there are no employee benefits (holiday pay, sickness leave, etc.) in working at the independent Bar. Barristers who are employed by companies, public bodies or law firms are known as the “employed Bar”.

To become a barrister, graduates with a qualifying law degree (or non-law graduates who complete the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL)) need to complete the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) and undertake a pupillage at a barristers’ chambers or another employer. Attaining a pupillage is extremely difficult and the competition is fierce for places. Together with the rigours of being self-employed and working independently, many people (like me) decide to forego the path of a barrister. There are still a greater number of people completing the BPTC than there are pupillage places, and although the reward is a fulfilling and prestigious career, it is key that prospective barristers approach this path with their eyes open.

For myself, the key motivators for choosing a career as a solicitor over that of a barrister were direct contact with clients and working in a team. Solicitors are those who deal with what are known as “lay-clients”, who could be individuals, companies or other corporate bodies. Solicitors provide legal services directly to these clients and will manage the case for client from its outset to its conclusion. As mentioned earlier, they may instruct a barrister if the case requires a specialist opinion or advocacy. Solicitors can train to become advocates also and attain higher rights of audience in the higher courts, but this still remains relatively uncommon, and most solicitors continue to engage barristers for advocacy.

Totalling roughly 140,000, there are almost nine times as many solicitors as barristers in England and Wales. Solicitors usually work in firms, which are teams of solicitors, headed by the partners in the business. Partners usually have shares in the firm, and take their earnings in the form of drawings. All other solicitors (and trainee solicitors) are employees, and are paid salaries (also enjoying employee benefits).

To become a solicitor, graduates with a qualifying law degree (or non-law graduates who complete the GDL) need to complete the Legal Practice Course (LPC). After completing the LPC, prospective solicitors must undertake a period of training, which is usually a two year training contract in a law firm, in-house legal team or public body. During the training contract, trainees must also complete the mandatory Professional Skills Course (PSC) before they can be admitted onto the roll of solicitors. This is also due to change soon though, as the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) is set to introduce an exam, which will be built into the training and replace the GDL and LPC, known as the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE).

In addition to my other reasons for wanting to become a solicitor, the opportunity to have my fees paid for the LPC was another convincing factor. However, it is important to point out that it is usually only the City firms and larger regional firms who are prepared to do this, and applications for training contracts at these firms can be just as competitive as applying for pupillage. It is also important to consider the timing of your application – most City and large regional commercial firms recruit on a two-year rolling basis, and so your start date at the firm is likely to be two years later than your offer of a training contract. For this reason, applicants are usually encouraged to apply in their penultimate year of undergraduate study, and, although some firms offer work experience for first year undergraduate students, it is usually too early to apply to most firms. Smaller firms and high-street practices often recruit on a shorter time-frame, but are less likely to cover fees for law school.

Hopefully this has given you a better idea of the differences between the role of a barrister and that of a solicitor, and the key considerations in choosing to pursue one over the other. The route to becoming a solicitor or barrister are both expensive, and getting a job at the end can feel similar to winning The Apprentice, but for those with the right skills and motivation, it results in a dynamic and fulfilling career. I have spoken from my experience in becoming a solicitor at a global law firm, which has allowed me to achieve my goals of working in a team and working internationally on some of the most high-profile, cutting edge matters. I am enjoying my career so far and I hope this helps in guiding you to the role you will enjoy the most!

We hope you found Jason’s piece useful! Remember we’ve got lots more advice on legal careers available on our Law Careers KEATS page if you need more advice.