Barrister or solicitor? They're two very different career paths, but both are open to you at the start of your career. You can of course switch later too: several qualified lawyers and barristers that we know have started down one path and then pivoted to the other. But it's better to get your decision right from the start.
What to expect
In this blog article, we will cover:
- what do barristers and solicitors do?
- how do I become a solicitor or barrister?
- how is a solicitor's or barrister's work structured?
- the personal things you will have to reflect on to make the right choice.
What do barristers and solicitors do?
The first step is to understand what a solicitor or barrister does as part of their day-to-day work. This includes how you may qualify as a solicitor or barrister in England and Wales, the kind of work they do, who they work with and the structure of their work.
Do I need a law degree?
As a side note before we jump into the details of what a solicitor or barrister is, you do not need a law degree to become either a solicitor or a barrister. Although the more academic nature of barristers' work means that a law degree is helpful, you take a conversion course after your undergraduate degree to satisfy any requirements (which you can read more about below).
Should I become a solicitor?
How do I qualify as a solicitor?
First, let's consider what qualifying as a solicitor looks like. If you are qualifying under the 'old route', your journey to qualification looks something like:
- an undergraduate law degree (or an undergraduate non-law degree and a conversion course, like the Postgraduate Diploma in Law (PGDL);
- the legal practice course (LPC); and
- a two-year training contract.
If we assume that your undergraduate degree is three years long, qualifying as a solicitor will take approximately six to seven years (provided you complete each of the steps back-to-back).
If you are qualifying under the 'new route', namely the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE), this may be drastically different and can vary substantially between students depending on their circumstances. However, the route generally involves:
- an undergraduate degree in any subject;
- pass both stages of the SQE; and
- gain two years' full-time qualifying work experience.
In theory, you could complete this route in five years; however, you'll most likely be taking an SQE preparatory course. Therefore, if we would suggest that it may take you closer to six to seven years depending on whether you did an undergraduate law degree (similar to the old route).
What kind of work does a solicitor do?
As a solicitor your work revolves around client matters. Clients may approach you (or, in most cases, your firm) with a wide variety of legal matters that they are seeking advice on. These are not necessarily contentious matters, most clients just want advice on managing their business, dealing with their tax burdens, and so on. Your main job as a solicitor is to give them such legal advice.
In practice, solicitors are the first point of contact with the client and will need to use their own legal knowledge (and research) to provide their clients with the appropriate legal knowledge and commercial knowhow to navigate their problems. Crucially, as a solicitor, your role is not passive. You must come up with practical solutions and strategies that are actionable. Most clients want you to know the law, but they aren't interested in it themselves - they just care about what the practicalities are!
You should expect to meet with clients regularly and do a lot of drafting. On a near daily basis, you will write emails, memorandums, contract clauses, advice notes, etc. You will also carry out lots of document review activities (e.g. as part of a due diligence process).
Finally, as a solicitor, although you may have some specialisms, it is unlikely that you are hyper-specialised (at least, not early in your career). For example, you may qualify into a general corporate/M&A team where you might help an energy company acquire a wind farm on Monday and help a supermarket acquire an abattoir on Thursday! A solicitor must be flexible and able to work on several different kinds of matters with several different kinds of clients.
Who does a solicitor work with?
A solicitor typically works within a law firm and as part of a team. This means that you constantly interact with your peers. It's essential to have good teamwork and interpersonal skills.
Barristers are self-employed, with the career often being describe as solitary. This is far from the case as a solicitor. As a solicitor, you will liaise with your supervisor on a daily basis, take client calls and attend team meetings. If you enjoy the general hustle and bustle of conversations and meetings and like to work with others, then you will get ample opportunity to do this as a solicitor.
How is a solicitor's work structured?
As mentioned, most solicitors work as part of larger law firms. Although you may have a few individuals here and there who practise independently, this is typically not the case. If you are a trainee or an associate at the law firm, it is unlikely you will find clients yourself. This is the role of the partners of the firm. They will work to acquire new clients and maintain existing client relationships. These clients then approach the law firm when they need legal advice and, subject to checking for potential conflicts with other existing clients, the partner(s) will assemble a team to provide the necessary legal advice.
As a trainee or associate, therefore, you are assigned work and get little choice as to whether or not you do it! You are employed by the firm and are remunerated via a salary, although equity partners (who may still have a salary depending on the firm structure) are paid based on a percentage of the firm's profits.
Should I become a barrister?
How do I qualify as a Barrister?
To qualify as a barrister, you will need to complete:
- an undergraduate law degree (or an undergraduate non-law degree and a conversion course, like the PGDL);
- the 'vocational component' which is usually a year-long course like the University of Law's Bar Practice Course, or BPP's Bar Training Course (previously this used to be standardised as the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC);
- the 'work-based component' which is known as a 'pupillage'.
If you qualify in this way, the entire journey is expected to take approximately five to six years, provided you complete all of the steps back-to-back.
What kind of work does a Barrister do?
Barristers are advocacy experts. They are almost always focused on contentious matters; although, not all barristers consistently appear in court. Their role can either be on an advisory basis, or on a representative basis (i.e. representing clients in court, making arguments, etc.). Clients may also hire barristers in the context of hostile negotiations, where the matter is threatening to go to court.
However, for the most part, a barrister typically is involved in a matter towards the end of its life - something has gone wrong, and the client either needs to litigate or is close to doing so.
A barrister's work is a mix between practical work and research. On the practical front, barristers will represent their clients in court, interview (factual and expert) witnesses, and make submissions to the court. On the research front, barristers need to have a deep, academic understanding of the law. Therefore, much of what a barrister does is research the law (statute, case law and academics' publications) to produce the best arguments for their clients. You should note that this research is not done in isolation - it is with a purpose of persuading the judge, jury, or arbitrators that their client's position is the correct one!
Finally, as a barrister, you will develop a particular specialism. Although it is true that some barristers (especially when they are less experienced) deal in multiple areas, most barristers are specialised in one kind of matter. For example, you will find barristers who only do 'wet' disputes (accidents at sea, piracy, etc.) or those who specialise in representing those accused of homicide. You will find that the average barrister is more specialised than your average solicitor.
How is a Barrister's work structured?
Typically, barristers are self-employed, meaning they must pull in their own work. They are grouped together in 'chambers' (namely, offices) to which they must pay rent. The rent goes towards the upkeep of the chambers as well as paying its support staff.
Barristers usually get their work from solicitors, although members of the public may directly instruct a barrister too. Therefore, barristers must ensure they keep good relationships with their solicitor-peers. As a barrister is self-employed, it is up to them to convince solicitors to instruct them and pass them work! This will be down to the barrister's competency and how well they can form relationships with law firms and the solicitors therein. However, at the start of your career, you will often help more experienced barristers with their work which they have won.
Should I become a barrister or a solicitor?
You may be a student who has not yet had any work experience in either profession. Therefore, at this stage, it may be hard for you to decide which is the right choice for you. However, you can think about some of the key aspects of both careers and reflect on your own personal preferences to see which one, in theory, suits you best.
How do you find the prospect of standing up and presenting in court? Are you a natural orator? Or would you prefer to have less time in the spotlight?
Those who enjoy acting, debating, mooting, and other such activities, are better suited to being a barrister. After all, a large part of being a barrister is standing up in court and making arguments. If you feel uncomfortable with this prospect, or simply don't want your success to hang on your performance in the moment, you may not like some of the work that a barrister does.
You should consider that solicitors will also have to engage in a degree of public speaking. You will need to communicate extensively with your colleagues and, at more senior levels, lead presentations and client pitches. You cannot escape interpersonal interaction and public speaking as a lawyer. However, if you become a barrister, you will certainly have more public speaking obligations!
You must also note that advocacy skills are required by both solicitors and barristers. As a solicitor, your advocacy will be channelled more so into written work, whilst as a barrister your oral advocacy skills will also need to be well-honed.
Working together or alone?
Solicitors usually work together as part of a team. They are typically employed as part of a larger law firm who all work under the same name. This is great if you are someone who prefers working with others and would like to share responsibility.
If you prefer working alone, then working as a barrister is probably the better option. As a barrister you must take full ownership of your work. You are self-employed and so you need to complete your work to the best standard that you can to improve your future prospects of winning further work. The benefit is that you are in control of the work that you take on and the quality of work that goes out. If that autonomy excites you, then becoming a barrister might be the right choice for you.
Consistency or Unpredictability?
Both career paths offer a wide variety of work - it just comes as a perk of being a lawyer! However, if you prefer having a regular workstream without having to fight for work, you may prefer to become a solicitor. As you will be employed by a law firm, you have excellent job stability and a regular flow of work. You might need to work harder on some days than others, but you'll almost always have work!
On the other hand, a career as a barrister entails you needing to get work on your own. You might work with more senior barristers on matters which will help you get said work, but you will need to get a lot of your work yourself. This means that your job is less stable (whilst you build your reputation and contacts) and your workflow may be less regular. But, therefore, this profession gives you a lot of flexibility. As with most things, there are pros and cons with every facet of the job.
Depth or breadth?
Finally, you may be pulled towards one profession over the other depending on your preference for the more academic points of law or more practical, business-focused work. A commercial solicitor working in a transaction-focused department will have their work based on the practical needs of the client. They are unlikely to get into the minutiae of black letter law. Instead, they will be focusing their attention on how to get a deal done, and all the commercial considerations and negotiations that need to be completed. Solicitors also work across a wide range of industries and sometimes even practice areas. This gives them significant exposure to a wide range of topics and kinds of work.
Barristers are focused more on black letter law and typically have a very specialised bank of legal knowledge. If you are more interested in the detail of the law, becoming a barrister may be more preferable. The intellectual challenge presented by the work of a barrister is unparalleled and offers the more academically inclined individuals a source of great enjoyment and motivation. This is not to say that a barrister's work is unvaried either; barristers have a wide variety of work to get involved with, as each case will have different facts. However, they may not be able to get involved in such a range of industries or areas of law as, perhaps, a solicitor in a large commercial law firm.
Over the course of this article, we have looked at whether you should become a barrister or a solicitor. Specifically, we have covered what barristers and solicitors do, what the main differences are and some things to reflect upon to make the right choice.
Our advice can be summarised as follows:
- Neither the solicitor's and barrister's qualification routes require you to have an undergraduate law degree and they take roughly the same amount of time.
- Although both professions are focused on providing legal advice to clients, solicitors are focused more on the out of court legal work, whilst barristers are experts in written and oral advocacy which they demonstrate predominantly in court and other hearings.
- Barristers are more specialised, focus more on black letter law and are self-employed.
- Solicitors are less specialised, focus more on practical considerations and solutions and are employed by law firms.
- As a barrister, you will have a great degree of flexibility and independence. Your work will provide a great intellectual challenge and you will get the thrill of arguing in court.
- As a solicitor, you will have a large variety of clients, practice areas, and industries to get to know. You will get to work as part of a team and have a strong job stability. You will also have a regular working schedule due to the continuous inflow of work, although hours may vary.
- To decide whether you should become a solicitor or a barrister, ask yourself whether you like public speaking, prefer working with others or alone, desire consistency, and want depth or breadth.
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