What kind of lawyer do you want to be?

anchor

Let's start with one of the most basic questions – do you want to be a barrister or a solicitor? Here we give a simple description of each.

Barrister

anchor 

Ask a solicitor about the key difference between the two sides of the profession and they’ll probably tell you it comes down to one thing: ego. At first glance the role of a barrister certainly looks a lot cooler than that of a solicitor. You know the deal – it’s all about striding into courtrooms, robes flowing, tense moments waiting for missing witnesses and razor-sharp cross-examinations. Glamorous? It’s downright sexy! The truth, of course, is that there’s a great deal more to it than looking good in a wig…

Essentially barristers do three things:

  • appear in court to represent others
  • give specialised legal advice in person or in writing
  • draft court documents
The proportion of time spent on each depends on the type of law the barrister practises. Criminal barristers are in court most of the time, often with only an hour or two’s notice of the details of their cases. By contrast, commercial barristers spend most of their time on more academic pursuits in chambers, writing tricky opinions and advising in conference on complicated legal points.

Barristers must display the skill and clarity to make complex or arcane legal arguments accessible to lay clients, juries and the judiciary. Their style of argument must be clear and persuasive, both in court and on paper. It has been some time since barristers have had exclusive rights of audience in the courts, though. Solicitors can train to become accredited advocates in even the higher courts.

This encroachment hasn’t been an utter disaster for the Bar, although solicitor advocates are handling a lot more of the most straightforward cases. When it comes to more complicated and lengthy matters, barristers are usually still briefed to do the advocacy, not least because this is often the most cost-effective way of managing a case. As a point of interest, solicitor advocates do not wear the wig and gown and are referred to as ‘my friend’ rather than ‘my learned friend’.

Solicitors value barristers’ detailed knowledge of the litigation process and their ability to assess and advise on the merits and demerits of a case. A solicitor will pay good money for ‘counsel’s opinion’. Certainly in the area of commercial law, a barrister must understand the client’s perspective and use their legal knowledge to develop solutions that make business or common sense as well as legal sense. If you were hoping a career as a barrister would allow you to rise above the rigours and scraping of modern-day capitalism, think again.

Of the UK’s 15,500 or so barristers, over 12,600 are self-employed. This is why you hear the expression ‘the independent Bar’. The remainder are employed by companies, public bodies or law firms, and they make up ‘the employed Bar’. To prevent independence from turning into isolation, barristers, like badgers, work in groups called 'sets', sharing premises and professional managers, etc. Barristers do not work for their sets, just at their premises, and as ‘tenants’ they contribute to the upkeep of their chambers. A percentage of their earnings also goes to pay their clerks and administrators. Unlike employed barristers and solicitors, those at the independent Bar get no sickness pay, holiday pay, maternity leave or monthly salary. What they do get is a good accountant.

To enter practice, LLB grads need to complete the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) before starting a much sought-after year of ‘pupillage’. Non-law grads need to first complete the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) before taking the BPTC. After the pupillage, hopefully, the set you’re with will then take you on as a tenant, though you may have to look elsewhere. Once tenancy is established, you’re home free (well, except for the gruelling schedule, high pressure, concerns over how much you’ll earn, dedicated wig maintenance…).

Being a barrister is a great job, and the fact that this is no secret means competition is truly fierce. If your appetite has been whetted you will find much more information in the final section of this book, where we have detailed the recruitment process and laid bare some of the more obscure practices and terminology. We have also tried to give a fair assessment of some of the difficulties that aspiring barristers may encounter. The main difficulty is that there are many more aspiring barristers than can possibly achieve a career at the Bar. The Chambers Reports give invaluable insight into the lives of pupils and junior barristers at some of the best sets.

The Bar’s professional body is the Bar Council, and it is regulated by the Bar Standards Board.

Solicitor

anchor 

Most lawyers qualify as solicitors: in fact, there are almost eight times as many solicitors as barristers in the UK. Their role is to provide legal services directly to lay clients, who could be individuals, companies (private or public) or other bodies. In short, clients come to solicitors for guidance on how to deal with their business or personal proposals and problems. These could be anything from drafting a will to defending a murder charge or buying a multibillion-pound business.

The solicitor advises on the steps needed to proceed and then manages the case or the deal for the client until its conclusion. They will bring in a barrister if and when a second opinion or specialist advocacy is needed. The solicitor’s role is much more like that of a project manager than the barrister’s.

According to the Law Society, there are over 121,900 solicitors in England and Wales, with practising certificates issued annually by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA). Over 87,900 of them are in ‘private practice’ in solicitors’ firms, and of those, 38,000 are employed in London. Many thousands work in-house for companies, charities or public authorities.

Most readers will be well aware that after an undergraduate degree, law school beckons. Law grads need to take the Legal Practice Course (LPC). Non-law grads must first complete the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) before being eligible for the LPC.

Next comes the practical training. The most common way of qualifying is by undertaking a two-year training contract with a firm of solicitors, Law Centre, in-house legal team or public body. Much of the rest of this book deals with the nature of training contracts at different firms and how to procure one. The SRA’s website gives all the fine detail you could wish for as to the requirements for training.

However, there are changes afoot. Between 2008 and 2010, a SRA pilot examined alternate qualification routes. Candidates clocked relevant work experiences, which were then assessed against skills expected to be acquired in a traditional training contract. Full details of this can be found on the SRA’s website at www.sra.org.uk/students/work-based-learning.page. The idea is to dovetail this alternative qualification route with the part-time LPC, possibly blending study and work.

From the limited feedback we received, the pilot prompted mixed responses within the profession. The work-based learning model has its fans, but it also has its detractors who question whether it is an appropriate way of introducing new lawyers to the profession. The SRA published an initial evaluation of the pilot in 2011 (available on its website) and will make further recommendations in December 2012. If a work-based learning scheme is rolled out, it is unlikely to provide an easier route to qualification. More on possible changes to legal education later in this guide.

Upon satisfactory completion of their training contract and the mandatory Professional Skills Course (PSC), a person can be admitted to the roll of those eligible to practise as a solicitor and apply for a practising certificate. They are then fully qualified. There are even enrolment ceremonies for anyone who fancies that graduation experience for the umpteenth time!

Where people often trip up is not being fully aware of when they should apply for a training contract. This will depend on the kind of firm you hope to join. If you are studying for a law degree and you want to work in a commercial firm, the crucial time for research and applications is early on during your penultimate year at uni.

If you are a non-law student intending to proceed straight to a GDL ‘conversion course’ before going to a commercial firm, you’ll have to juggle exams and career considerations in your final year. Students wanting to enter high-street practice or many of the smaller firms usually don’t need to worry about training contract applications quite so early. Unlike commercial firms, which generally offer contracts two years in advance of the start date, smaller firms often recruit closer to the start date, and possibly after a trial period of working as a paralegal.

Larger commercial firms more often than not cover the cost when it comes to their future trainees’ law school fees and other basic expenses. Public sector organisations, eg the Government Legal Service, may also come up with some cash. Students hoping to practise in smaller firms soon learn that financial assistance is far from likely and this can make law school a costly and uncertain endeavour.

Needless to say, your choice of firm will shape the path of your career. A firm’s clients, its work and its reputation will determine not only the experience you gain but probably also your future marketability as a lawyer. At Chambers and Partners, we’ve made it our business to know who does what, how well they do it and what it might be like working at a particular firm.

Our parent publication Chambers UK will also be an incredibly useful resource for you. Its league tables show which firms command greatest respect from clients and other professionals in different areas of practice right across the country. You can search the entire thing for free at www.chambersandpartners.com and use it to help create a shortlist of firms to apply to.

In the True Picture section of this guide we’ve profiled 120 firms in England and Wales. Our goal is to help you understand what kind of firm might suit you and the kind of work you can expect to undertake when you get there. It is the product of many hundreds of interviews with trainees and we think you’ll really benefit from making it your regular bedtime reading or favourite bookmark on your smartphone.

We’ve also interviewed recruiters, training partners and managing partners to give you the lowdown on firms’ business models, plans for the future and recruitment strategies. You should also read through the Solicitors’ Practice Areas section of this guide to gain an understanding of what’s involved in different fields of practice.