The term of lawyer and solicitor can actually be interchangeable, in some respects. The term lawyer covers any individual who is qualified as a licensed legal practitioner and as a result lawyers will most often be involved in providing legal advice to clients or representing them and their interests in court. A lawyer might therefore be a barrister, solicitor or a chartered legal executive and so it is most accurate to say that a solicitor is a type of lawyer.
In a similar way, barristers are not the same as solicitors, but both roles can be described as being a lawyer, as barristers and solicitors are two different branches of the legal profession.
So, what is the specific role of a solicitor and how does this differ from the role of a barrister? A solicitor can provide legal representation as well as more general legal advice and support in a variety of areas of law including conveyancing, family law, criminal law and business law. Usually, a solicitor will take the lead on the correspondence with the client taking responsibility for the paperwork relating to the case, whether this is to cover the legal requirements of a process such as buying or selling a home, through to preparing the necessary documentation or evidence ahead of a court hearing.
Another aspect of a solicitor’s responsibilities often includes the need to negotiate with clients and other parties to secure agreed objectives, gather evidence, oversee the implementation of agreements and calculate claims, bringing together the different threads involved in a case or claim.
While solicitors can represent their clients in disputes and certain solicitors can appear in court as advocates and take responsibility for representing their clients in court if this becomes necessary. For more complicated legal matters, solicitors will instruct barristers or specialist advocates to act on their behalf, but these barristers or advocates are just another type of legal expert under the overall umbrella banner of lawyer.
As a description of anyone who is qualified as a licensed legal practitioner, the term of ‘lawyer’ also describes a barrister, but what does a barrister do?
Essentially, a barrister working in England or Wales will be employed by a solicitor in order to represent a case in court. Barristers are focused specifically on advocacy before a court and so will only be instructed by a solicitor when a case needs representation in court. The specific responsibility of a barrister has been described as, “translating and structuring their client's view of events into legal arguments and to make persuasive representations which obtain the best possible result for their client".
Most often, barristers will specialise in an area of law. Some of these specific spheres of law might include criminal law, commercial law, common law (which relates to areas of family law and personal injury), chancery law (which covers legal aspects around estates and trusts) and entertainment law.
As a result, the type of work a barrister will be involved in depends very much on their level of experience and the area of speciality that a particular barrister works in. In general, a barrister will assess a client’s case in relation to the law and provide guidance on the strength of their case. They will then act as the client’s advocate in court. This may involve examining and cross-examining witnesses, as well as detailing supporting evidence and legal arguments in court which support the client’s case. Barristers may also be involved in negotiating settlements out of court.
Approximately 80% of the barristers practising in England and Wales are self-employed, working in offices which are known as chambers which they usually share with other barristers. After completing their training, barristers often look to take up permanent positions, which is known as tenancy, within a ‘set’ of Chambers.
Barristers might also be employed in solicitors' firms, helping to advise clients more directly, while others may take roles with agencies such as the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). Another avenue for barristers is to find employment in specialist legal departments within industry, working directly with commercial businesses, charitable organisations or government bodies addressing the specific legal needs of their employer.
Typically, a self-employed barrister cannot be employed directly by a client, and a client will need to first contact a solicitor who would instruct a barrister on the client’s behalf. There is an exception to this, when a barrister is a member of the Public Access Scheme. This enables a member of the public to approach a barrister directly to secure legal advice or representation.