Student Life

What’s the difference between a lawyer, a solicitor and a barrister? What do they do and how to become them?

3 min
November 15, 2021
Law can be a pretty murky subject, and there is a lot of confusion out there, so we're here to be your one-stop guide to all things legal.

What does a lawyer do? 

Everyone has *some* idea of what a lawyer does, usually informed by highly glamorised TV shows and movies, and in order to keep things interesting, they sometimes forego fact. One of the biggest confusions out there is the difference between a lawyer and a solicitor, so let's break it down. 

A 'lawyer' is a generic term used to describe a person who is a Licensed Legal Practitioner and it is often used interchangeably with the term solicitor as they mean the same thing. A barrister could even be called a lawyer, but they probably want you to get it right with all the extra training they do! 

What does a solicitor do?

We've all seen sharp suits, swanky offices, big bluffs and some great one-liners on Suits, but real solicitors spend a lot of long hours at their desks drafting documents. Let's break it down...

A solicitor's work can be divided into two areas: contentious legal work and non-contentious legal work. Contentious legal work is all about resolving disputes either in court or at tribunal, whereas non-contentious legal work deals with the legal aspects of either a business or an individual - this could be anything from managing a company merger or drawing up a will. 

A solicitor's tasks include:

  • liaising with clients and barristers
  • researching cases and legislation
  • representing individuals' or companies at court or tribunals 
  • drafting contracts and wills - everyone has signed a contract at some point in their life, whether it's an employment contract or a phone bill, and you can bet a solicitor drew it up!

How much does a lawyer make?

Solicitors are employed either in law firms, the government or legal departments within organisations. So their pay varies depending on sector, specialism and location. 

Trainee solicitors at magic circle firms (a term used to describe the five most prestigious London-headquartered law firms) can make around £50,000 a year. In contrast, those based outside of London at less well-known firms make around £23,000 during training. 

Newly-qualified lawyers will see a jump in their earnings, with magic circle lawyers earning around £100,000 a year! While this sounds great, magic circle law firms are notorious for long hours and hard work; that's why they pay more.

Lawyers earn less elsewhere in the country and at smaller firms, but they will likely be given more responsibility earlier on in their career and climb the ladder quicker. Salaries for newly-qualified lawyers across the rest of the UK range from £27,000 to £60,000. Solicitors can expect their pay to rise year on year as they gain post-qualified experience. 

How long does it take to become a lawyer?

If you study full time, it usually takes around six years to become a solicitor, but it takes longer if you decide to do a different degree first and then choose to pursue law. 

How to become a solicitor

Having completed your law degree, you need to do the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE), which consists of SQE1 and SQE2. SQE1 tests how candidates would apply their legal knowledge, research and writing skills in real scenarios across different practice areas. SQE2 covers “practical legal skills” and involves both oral and written assessments, with an emphasis on the everyday skills of lawyering, such as drafting contracts and interviewing clients.

Once you've completed the SQE, you'll need to do two years of 'qualifying work experience' (QWE). This is the final step towards qualifying. If you don't have a law degree, check out the GDL route here

What is a barrister?

A barrister is an independent, qualified legal professional who offers specialist advice while representing, advocating and defending their clients in court or at tribunals. But what does that actually mean? 

Let's use an example: If you've got a problem with your hand, you might go to your GP (General Practitioner). The GP might send you home with some tablets OR they might refer you to a consultant specialising in hands. GP's can't know everything about everything, so once they have an idea of what's wrong, they'll send you to a consultant that specialises in that thing, in this case, hands. It's then the hand consultant's job to help diagnose and treat you.

So why did we start going on about GPs in an article about the law? Well, a solicitor is like a GP, and a barrister is like a consultant, but instead of having specialist knowledge of hands, they are experts in advocating for their clients in a court of law. 

Much like the GP/consultant relationship, barristers receive their cases through solicitors and they usually only get involved when cases go to court.

What does a barrister do?

Barristers work in many different areas of the law and at different levels, so what they do day-to-day varies but generally, barristers will usually be busy...

  • Negotiating settlements - this is when a legal dispute is resolved privately outside of court. 
  • Drafting court or tribunal documents. 
  • Understanding and translating the law to provide legal advice - a lot of this is about keeping up to date with landmark rulings and changes in legislation. 
  • Advising solicitors and clients on the strength of their case, which isn't as straightforward as it sounds; to be a successful barrister, you have to navigate the case, take the best approach for your client and anticipate the actions of the defence. 
  • Representing clients in court, which involves making a case, cross-examining witnesses and giving summaries. 
  • At some senior or even political levels, barristers can be involved in developing legal policies and strategies.

How to become a barrister

There are four components to qualifying as a barrister:

  • Academic learning - completing either a Law Degree or Law Conversion Course (GDL).
  • Vocational learning - a Bar Training Course (BTC) * (unfortunately, to add to the confusion there are a couple of different names for the same exam, it all depends on what training provider you choose! Look out for these: Bar Practice Course (BPC), Bar Vocation Course (BVS)).
  • A pupillage - this usually takes place over a year and it involves shadowing a qualified barrister and their cases.
  • Barristers will also need to join one of four Inns: Gray's Inn, the Inner Temple, Lincoln's Inn and the Middle Temple. The inns are professional associations for barristers in England and Wales, and all barristers need to belong to one of them.

How much do barristers make? 

About 80% of barristers are self-employed, and their earnings can vary significantly depending on a range of factors:

  • Location (barristers in London will usually make more than in smaller cities or towns) 
  • Area of practice (barristers that work with large corporations tend to make more than ones that deal with family or criminal law)
  • Type of employer (as we said at the top, most barristers are self-employed, meaning they don't have the luxury of sick or holiday pay) 
  • Experience, reputation and relationships (barristers that have excellent working relationships with solicitors will usually be referred more work).
  • Having said all that, being a barrister is a lucrative career choice and as they can set the price for their services, they can either charge by the hour or may offer a fixed fee for a particular piece of work. A barrister with five years' experience can expect to earn between £50,000 and £200,000, while a barrister with ten years of experience can earn anything between £65,000 and two million pounds - not bad, right?!

A final note 

Whilst we have spent most of the article explaining the difference between a solicitor and a barrister, it's important to note that the two roles are becoming less distinct. A member of the public would usually seek out a solicitor as their first port of call, but now many can and will go straight to a barrister for specialist advice and court representation. Going straight to a barrister essentially cuts out the middleman (the solicitor), helping to reduce the legal costs for the client. 

Solicitors can also obtain 'rights of audience', which allows them to represent clients in court, which means they can perform many of the functions of a barrister (but there are some courts that only barristers can speak in).

What’s next?

Now that you know the difference and what’s needed - are you interested in becoming a solicitor or barrister? For a taste of the action why don’t you try our law virtual work experience programme to see if you’ve got what it takes!

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