Let's start with one of the most basic questions – do you want to be a barrister or a solicitor?
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 fly 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 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.
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 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’. The Bar's professional body is the Bar Council, and it is regulated by the Bar Standards Board (BSB).
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 think a career as a barrister will allow you to rise above the rigours and scraping of modern-day capitalism, think again.
Of the UK’s 16,600 or so barristers, approximately 80% 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, parental leave or monthly salary. What they do get is a good accountant.
To enter practice, law grads need to complete the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) before starting a much sought-after year of ‘pupillage’.
To enter practice, law grads need to complete the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) before starting a much sought-after year of pupillage at a barristers' chambers or other employer. Non-law grads need to first complete the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) before taking the BPTC. After pupillage, hopefully, the set you’re with will take you on as a tenant, though if they don't want you 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…). The BSB has recently announced some small changes to the BPTC which include the possibility for the course to be split in two; you can read more about these here.
The competition to become a barrister is truly fierce. The main difficulty is that there are many more aspiring barristers than can possibly achieve a career at the Bar. If you want to know more, peruse the Bar section of this website, where we provide details on the recruitment process, practice areas, terminology and the difficulties that aspiring barristers may encounter. The Chambers Reports give invaluable insight into the lives of pupils and junior barristers at some of the best sets.
Most lawyers qualify as solicitors: in fact, there are almost nine 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 Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), there are 146,000 solicitors in England and Wales (as of July 2019), with practising certificates issued annually by the SRA. Roughly two-thirds of them are in ‘private practice’ in solicitors’ firms, and around two-fifths are employed in London. Many thousands work in-house for companies, charities or public authorities.
At present, those on the path into the solicitors' profession attend law school after an undergraduate degree. 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.
The most common way of qualifying is by undertaking a two-year training contract with a firm of solicitors.
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.
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.
Almost everything above is about to change, however. In 2021 the new Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) 'superexam' will be introduced. This 'exam' will actually consist of two sets of exams, one taken at the start of a two-year period of work experience and one at the end, which will replace the GDL and LPC. In addition, the requirement to do a formal training contract will disappear. Such a traineeship will become just one way of gaining the required two years of legal work experience, which can be gained at up to four different employers as a paralegal or working in a law clinic.
At the moment, where people often trip up is not being fully aware of when they should apply for a training contract. Most big employers recruit two years in advance. If you are studying law 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. Smaller firms and high-street practices may recruit closer to the start date, and sometimes after a trial period of working as a paralegal.
Larger commercial firms more often than not cover the cost of their future trainees’ law school fees and other basic expenses. However, for students hoping to practise in smaller firms financial assistance is far from likely, and this can make law school a costly and uncertain endeavour.
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, 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.
The rankings of law firms and lawyers on chambers.com will also be an incredibly useful resource for you. These rankings show which firms command greatest respect from clients and other professionals in different areas of practice right across the world and in different UK regions. You can search the entire thing for free online and use it to help create a shortlist of firms which work in the areas you're interested in.
In the True Picture section of this guide we’ve profiled 125 leading legal employers 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.