Careers advice and planning

What is the difference between a solicitor and a barrister?

11 Oct 2023, 12:03

…and, for that matter, between a solicitor and a chartered legal executive. We chart the main differences between the legal professions to help you work out the right career option for you.

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While this article is called 'What is the difference between a solicitor and a barrister?' there are actually three main types of lawyer in the UK: solicitor, barrister (or advocate in Scotland) and chartered legal executive. Traditionally, the roles were very separate. There is now much more overlap between them, but key differences still remain, including in their day-to-day work, their routes to qualification, their employment status, how they earn money and their job location. Here, we run you through what distinguishes each legal profession from the other to help you decide which is best for you. Jump to:

What do solicitors do?

Put simply, solicitors are the first port of call for individuals and organisations who need legal advice, whether that’s drafting a contract, overseeing a merger and acquisition, pursuing a personal injury claim or setting up a family trust.

The work of a solicitor can be contentious or non-contentious. Contentious work is dispute-based, meaning that it could end up in court, mediation or arbitration. Some types of law (areas of legal practice) lead to more contentious work than others and, once qualified, solicitors tend to specialise in one or only a few practice areas.

What do barristers do?

Barristers and their Scottish equivalents, advocates, typically provide courtroom advocacy and related legal advice. If a case comes to court, a solicitor typically instructs a barrister on behalf of their client. This is a key difference between solicitors and barristers: although some solicitors can represent clients in court, it is much more usual for a barrister to do so. Some barristers may work across a number of practice areas, but many specialise from early on.

What do chartered legal executives do?

Chartered legal executives undertake similar work to that of solicitors, managing their own caseloads. They may go on to qualify as solicitors later in their careers. Like solicitors, they may also represent clients in court in some circumstances. Legal executives specialise in a practice area earlier than most solicitors do, training in one area of law rather than gaining a broader understanding of the law and practising a few different types while qualifying.

Differences in the day job: courtrooms and client relationships

As mentioned, while it is possible for solicitors and chartered legal executives to represent clients in court in some situations, it is still relatively unusual. Barristers still undertake the vast majority of advocacy work.

The amount of time they spend in the courtroom will vary according to their area of legal practice: for example, criminal barristers will spend a great deal of time in court, while court appearances for commercial barristers tend to be much less frequent, with more time given to written advice and client conferences.

Another key difference between solicitors, legal executives and barristers is the amount of client contact. Solicitors and legal executives tend to have a great deal of interaction with clients, dealing extensively with clients face to face, over the phone and online, and may build longstanding relationships with them. A barrister’s key point of contact, meanwhile, is typically the solicitor or executive who instructed them; their relationship with the client tends to be more at arms’ length.

Employed or self-employed?

Solicitors and legal executives typically work in private practice, employed by a law firm. Barristers, meanwhile, are usually self-employed, working out of a set of chambers (sometimes known as a stable in Scotland) comprising a number of barristers who share resources.

However, there are other options for solicitors, barristers and legal executives. These include working for the government, for example as a Government Legal Profession (GLP) or Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) lawyer, and working ‘in-house’ for a business or a not-for-profit organisation as their on-call legal representative.

Qualifying as a solicitor, barrister or legal executive

The routes to qualification for different types of lawyer are very different, which is why it’s important to decide whether you want to be a solicitor or a barrister as an undergraduate.

In England and Wales, aspiring barristers require an undergraduate law degree or a recognised postgraduate conversion course, a vocational Bar course qualification and a 12-month pupillage (graduate scheme), usually with a barristers’ chambers, to qualify.

Aspiring solicitors who began their studies in or after September 2021 now follow the solicitors’ qualifying examination (SQE) route to qualifying: essentially, this means that you need an undergraduate degree (or equivalent qualification), to pass two SQE assessments and undertake two years of qualifying work experience (QWE) before, during or after the SQE assessments. QWE can be undertaken with up to four different organisations, but is most commonly gained via a ‘training contract’ with a law firm. While officially you do not need to do any additional study before taking the SQE assessments, in practice you will probably need to.

Chartered legal executives, meanwhile, can complete different levels of professional qualification with the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEX), depending on their education background.

The qualification process in Scotland is different for both solicitors and advocates, requiring an LLB (at undergraduate level or through a postgraduate accelerated two-year route), a diploma in professional legal practice and a two-year traineeship with (usually) a solicitors’ firm. Aspiring advocates then undergo a period of devilling with a stable before qualifying.

Financial support while qualifying

Many larger solicitors’ firms will fund the studies of the trainees they hire; this is one of the reasons that they typically hire two years in advance of the start date (which means that you should start applying for training contracts and QWE in the second year of a law degree or in the final year of a non-law degree).

Would-be barristers will usually be expected to fund their own studies, although some barristers’ chambers will give their pupils an advance that can help pay for the Bar course (you can apply for pupillage in the final year of your law degree or while on a postgraduate conversion course). Some scholarships and bursaries are also available from the Inns of Court. It’s worth noting that only around one in four will become a practising barrister at the end of their studies.

Legal executives, meanwhile, have the chance to study while they earn and their qualification route can be cheaper than that of solicitors.

Salaries or earnings?

As barristers are self-employed and have to build their reputation (through their clerks) to become established. They have to manage their own finances. Solicitors and legal executives, on the other hand, are employed by their firms and paid a regular wage.

Lawyers’ earnings vary widely, depending on the law firm or chambers, the location and the type of law specialised in. For example, financial uncertainty is par for the course as a junior family or criminal barrister whereas commercial barristers earn high fees from the start.

As such, if it’s important to you to have a substantial income as soon as possible, you can try to gain a training contract at a big City firm or at one of the larger commercial sets of barristers’ chambers.

The larger City law firms typically offer trainees a pay packet of £40,000–£50,000 and £90,000+ on qualification. Salaries at regional firms and offices will be lower to reflect differences in living costs – and high street firms won’t be able to offer this sort of money.

Instead of a salary, pupil barristers receive a ‘pupillage award’ for the year. The most generous pupillage awards are available from commercial and chancery sets of chambers, where they are typically in the region of £40,000–£80,000 for 12 months. Sets carrying out publicly funded work cannot compete with these rates and are more likely to offer awards around the minimum rates set by the Bar Standards Board.

In contrast, CILEX says that salaries for its members are between £15,000 and £28,000 while you are studying. When you pass all the qualifications and satisfy the three-year employment requirements to become a fully qualified legal executive lawyer, you can earn a salary of between £35,000 and £55,000 – or more, especially if you become partner in a law firm.

Location, location, location

The majority of barristers’ chambers are found in London and other major cities such as Birmingham and Bristol. Solicitors and chartered legal executives can find work in most parts of the UK, from international firms in large cities to high street firms in smaller towns. Solicitors often have opportunities for national and international travel; barristers travel within the UK but mainly to courts outside of the capital, when required.

In Scotland, most qualified advocates work from stables (chambers) based in Edinburgh, whereas qualified solicitors can work across Scotland for different types of firms.

How do I work out whether I should be a solicitor, barrister or legal executive?

Start with some initial self-reflection on what you are best suited to. For example, would the prospect of being under pressure in court, needing to make some brilliant but complicated legal argument bring out the best in you? Or would you get more satisfaction out of building longer-term relationships with clients in a less emotive, more corporate environment? Would you relish the prospect of essentially building your own business or would you prefer not to have that financial uncertainty?

Then do everything you can to try the professions out. Law firms run formal work experience opportunities for students, including insight programmes and vacation schemes, and chambers run mini-pupillages. Use law fairs and events to meet trainees, pupils and experienced solicitors and barristers – or try reaching out to them on LinkedIn.

Think practically, too: where do you want to work in terms of location? If you are thinking of becoming a barrister, could you afford the qualification route if you do not get hired as a student by a law firm? Would an alternative route be better? It could be worth having a chat with a careers adviser about your unique circumstances.

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