Family Law

What is the difference between a solicitor and a barrister?

An article by Thomas Pavey, Partner

What is the difference between a solicitor and a barrister?

In this country lawyers generally fall into one of two categories: solicitors and barristers. While all lawyers will have an academic background in law, solicitors and barristers receive quite different professional and on the job training. They are also governed by two different regulatory bodies: the Solicitor’s Regulation Authority for solicitors and the Bar Standards Board for barristers.

But what are the actual practical differences between the two?

When someone says they are meeting with or instructing a lawyer, they generally mean a solicitor. A solicitor is a client’s gateway to the legal world. They will meet with the client, agree the terms upon which they take their case and will undertake all the necessary legal work to take the case to a conclusion. It is quite possible, indeed highly likely, that a barrister will have no involvement with a case at all, particularly for a case that is  transactional or unlikely to involve a serious dispute such as writing a will or purchasing a house.

Solicitors generally work as part of a firm. These can range massively in scope from sole practitioners to enormous organisations operating all over the word. Firms can specialise in particular areas such as family or criminal law or provide a full spectrum of services for organisations and/or individuals. Solicitors themselves also tend to specialise in a specific area of practice but a number offer services across a wider range of legal services.

So, when does a barrister become involved? Barristers are specialist advocates. That is to say they work exclusively in presenting a client’s case to a Court. As part of this function, they will also assist with drafting Court documents and advising on a case’s prospects and strategy. By definition this means they are generally only involved in contentious matters which are being or are likely to be litigated before a Court.

Unlike solicitors, barristers tend to be self-employed and generally  operate in specific groups known as chambers. Much like firms of solicitors, chambers tend to specialise in certain areas such as family law or commercial disputes. Chambers can vary in size but even the biggest sets are dwarfed by the larger firms of solicitors.

One final point to make is that the distinctions that have been set out above are hugely simplistic. The lines between the professions are becoming increasingly blurred. It is not the case, for example, that solicitors never undertake advocacy and indeed some train specifically to be able to so do in the higher courts. Barristers also increasingly work in house for law firms and other organisations rather than in chambers. That is to say nothing of the types of lawyers such as legal executives, paralegals and licensed conveyancers who form an ever-increasing part of the legal marketplace.