What is the difference between a lawyer and solicitor?
‘Lawyer’ is generally understood to be an umbrella term for a qualified legal practitioner, and can include both a solicitor and a barrister.
A solicitor is qualified to provide legal advice and representation directly to members of the public.
Below we look at the different roles played by legal practitioners in the legal system in the England and Wales, including their differing responsibilities and the skills required for each role.
Difference between lawyer and solicitor: What is a solicitor?
A solicitor can be experienced in a number of areas of law or, alternatively, a solicitor can specialise in one particular area, such as conveyancing, commercial property, litigation, wills and probate, personal injury, employment, criminal or family law.
In some cases you may instruct a solicitor to address a specific legal problem that you are currently facing, for example, if you are being sued or your spouse has issued divorce proceedings against you. Alternatively, you may seek the advice of a solicitor to prevent a legal problem from occurring, or to see where you stand in the eyes of the law if a particular set of circumstances were to arise.
Difference between lawyer and solicitor: The role and responsibilities of the solicitor
Typically, anyone seeking legal advice will initially instruct a solicitor. A solicitor will work directly with you to address a legal query, help resolve a legal dispute, or provide assistance with a non-contentious matter such as writing a will.
Having undertaken in-depth legal training and gained crucial post-qualification experience, the solicitor will have extensive knowledge of the law and procedure in England and Wales, and how these work in practice. As such, the solicitor can provide expert legal and tactical advice, in the context of strict procedural rules.
They will take instructions, explain your position in law and advise on what course of action is available to you. Your solicitor will also handle any necessary paperwork and correspond with any other parties concerned.
A solicitor is required to file proceedings or take other formal steps involved in litigation, such as serving documents on the other parties. A solicitor is also permitted to hold a client’s money in their firm’s trust account, for example, when dealing with a wills and probate matter.
A solicitor can negotiate on your behalf and provide representation in the lower courts, for example, for any preliminary hearings in advance of a trial or final hearing.
The case may be subsequently referred to a barrister at a later stage for more specialist advice on the law and/or representation in court. That is not to say a barrister is more senior to, or more highly qualified than, a solicitor – rather the two types of lawyer undertake different roles and responsibilities.
In the event that a barrister is required to attend court, often in more complex cases, the solicitor will provide written instructions to the barrister.
However, a qualified solicitor-advocate has what are known as ‘higher rights of audience’ and, as such, can undertake the role of both a solicitor and barrister. Having obtained the necessary accreditation, a solicitor-advocate is qualified to undertake advocacy in both the civil and criminal higher courts.
Difference between lawyer and solicitor: The skills required of a solicitor
The role of the solicitor can be multifold, from practical advice for their client to legal argument in court. In particular, a good solicitor will need the following skills:
Communication skills – the solicitor should be able to communicate clearly, both verbally and in writing, when communicating with or corresponding with their client, other parties or the court.
People skills – the solicitor must be able to liaise with all different kinds of people, from the lay client to instructing a barrister. The solicitor is also expected to deal with third party solicitors, court staff and judges.
Negotiation skills – the solicitor must not only be able to negotiate on a client’s behalf with other parties, but also manage and control their client’s expectations. In many cases, litigation can be avoided by effective negotiation, minimising the time, cost and unpredictability involved in going to court.
Research and analytical skills – the solicitor is required to apply the facts of a particular case to the relevant legal principles. A solicitor will already have a comprehensive understanding of the area of the law that they practice in, although further research and analysis is often necessary on a particular point of law. In some cases the solicitor may instruct a barrister to specifically advise on an unusual or complex point of law.
Difference between lawyer and solicitor: What is a barrister?
The historic difference between the role of a solicitor and the role of a barrister has become less obvious over the last few years. Broadly speaking, however, a barrister specialises in providing expert legal advice, advocacy in court and the drafting of documents. Essentially, they provide written advice on the prospects of your case or on a particular point of law, and represent clients in court.
A barrister is a member of the legal profession qualified to provide expert legal advice and representation. The barrister is typically instructed by the solicitor, ie; their professional client, although in some instances a barrister can be instructed directly by their lay client.
A barrister is a person called to the bar and is therefore automatically entitled to practise as an advocate, without further qualification. In court, a barrister is commonly referred to as counsel.
Typically, a barrister specialises in one particular area of law, such as personal injury, employment, criminal or family law – although you will still find many barristers that practice across related areas of law, for example, commercial law and professional negligence.
Difference between lawyer and solicitor: The role and responsibilities of the barrister
Although the work of a barrister will vary considerably depending on their area of practice and level of expertise, typically based on their year of call to the bar, they will usually undertake the following roles:
Provide written or verbal advice to the lay client and solicitor. The advice provided by counsel can be varied, but typically will include advice on the issue of liability, the value of a claim, what procedural steps may be needed and what further evidence may be required.
Draft legal documents such as statements of case, contracts or commercial agreements, or wills and trusts.
Negotiate a settlement, or seek to narrow the issues, in a dispute at court.
Present their client’s case in court, examining and cross-examining witnesses, and advancing argument as to why the court should support their case.
In England & Wales most barristers operate as part of chambers for administrative purposes, but are in fact self-employed and will maintain close links with different legal firms in their locality who instruct them on client matters.
Importantly, barristers are prevented from ‘cherry picking’ the cases they undertake. This is known as the cab rank rule. This rule prohibits a barrister from refusing a case, regardless of their personal convictions, unless they can prove that there is a conflict of interest in some way, or that the case is beyond the scope of their expertise.
Generally self-employed barristers cannot be instructed directly by a lay client, rather they first need to be briefed by a solicitor. However, some barristers are specially registered to work directly for members of the public under what’s known as the Public Access Scheme.
Whilst this can save on the cost of instructing both a barrister and solicitor, unless the barrister is authorised to conduct litigation on the client’s behalf, the burden of providing the barrister, and the court or other tribunal, with all the necessary information and documentation will fall to the lay client.
Some barristers are employed in-house, advising clients directly, for example, in law firms or agencies such as the Crown Prosecution Service. Other barristers work in specialist legal departments in industry, charities or government, advising only the organisations they work for.
Difference between lawyer and solicitor: The skills required of a barrister
The barrister must possess many of the same skills as any lawyer, including the ability to communicate well, negotiate effectively and undertake in-depth research. However, a barrister is first and foremost an advocate.
Above all else, the barrister must be able to formulate strong and persuasive argument both in and out of court.
The matters contained in this article are intended to be for general information purposes only. This article does not constitute legal advice, nor is it a complete or authoritative statement of the law, and should not be treated as such. Whilst every effort is made to ensure that the information is correct, no warranty, express or implied, is given as to its accuracy and no liability is accepted for any error or omission. Before acting on any of the information contained herein, expert legal advice should be sought.