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Lawyer, Solicitor, Barrister, or Counsel? Which one do I need?

Anyone contemplating going to court will need to consider carefully what type of legal representative they need.

What's the difference?

The above are all types of lawyer and divide into two groups:

  1. Barristers are also called ‘counsel’ – two words for the same group of people.
  2. Solicitors are those lawyers found in almost every high street. They represent individuals to resolve their legal problems.

These two types of lawyer have very different functions and have received training in different ways. Barristers do not rank in importance above solicitors although the way that they charge you will differ greatly.

In England and Wales, there is a two ‘tier’ system, and solicitors and barristers perform different functions.

Solicitors work for a law firm and will either be an employee of that firm (usually more junior solicitors) or a partner (the more senior and experienced solicitors in general). They work together as a business and often offer services in more than one area of law – for example, there will be a family law department, a litigation department and possibly several others.

A firm of solicitors cannot represent both sides in a dispute/divorce or other litigation, as this would present a ‘conflict of interest.’ All firms will check to make sure that this does not exist before they can represent a person.

Solicitors also deal with the areas of law that do not require going to court – examples include the legal paperwork in property sales/purchases and drawing up of contracts or other business agreements.

Barristers do not work as part of a business with others, and are self-employed. A group of barristers work together from ‘chambers.’ Each works independently of the other, sharing admin staff and other costs.

Both solicitors and barristers specialise in specific areas of law. The usual place to begin is to find a solicitor to represent you. The solicitor does all of the legal work outside of the courtroom and most will attend court for shorter hearings.

Generally speaking, the role of the solicitor is to confirm that there is actually a valid claim or dispute to resolve, to deal with the client and all of the paperwork and to liaise with the other side’s solicitor and hopefully reach a settlement or agreement without actually going to court.

Barristers will usually be instructed to give advice on the law and to speak (termed advocacy) on behalf of the client in the court hearings. However, some solicitors do their own advocacy.

A barrister spends much of their time in court or advising on particular points of law. They are experts at this and each will have a particular area of law in which they work. A barrister can also be called upon to give their opinion on a particular matter, especially where the cost of taking it to court could be very high.

The less experienced barristers are junior barristers, there are others who are more senior, the most senior being Queen’s Counsel (QC’s). As a general rule, costs rise according to experience and seniority.

Solicitors support barristers and may or may not attend court with them – increasingly, the solicitor will not attend due to the increased costs of having both legal representatives present. If a solicitor informs their client that a barrister is needed, the solicitor will instruct the barrister. Prior to the final court hearing, the client and barrister meet to discuss the case. However, it is the solicitor who puts together the paperwork and who will ‘brief’ the barrister to make them aware of all the important facts of the case.

How do barristers and solicitors charge for their work ?

Solicitors charge on an hourly rate, usually divided into units. Generally, clients receive a monthly bill detailing all of the work done . A client is given an estimate of these costs before work begins.

Barristers are usually paid a fixed amount, agreed in advance, having been advised by the solicitor of the amount of work expected to be involved in the case.

Previously, a barrister couldn’t accept instructions from a member of the public directly. However, this changed in 2004, and there are now a number of barristers who are part of a scheme called ‘public access’ or ‘direct access’; the two terms are interchangeable.

A person who needs to go to court can now go directly to a barrister rather than needing a solicitor too. This is not available for all cases as a person must be able to identify what is relevant and communicate this effectively to their barrister. Some understanding of the process is necessary and most members of the public would find this difficult.

More information about public access can be found here at the Bar Council website

Both types of lawyer can become judges after many years of experience. Solicitors and barristers perform different functions, and you should always ensure that anyone you are considering engaging is experienced in the type of problem that you have.

The best way to find a legal representative is through word of mouth. Solicitors must be on the ‘roll of solicitors.’ This identifies them as being qualified to accept instructions from clients and to give legal advice.

The Solicitor’s Regulation Authority ensures that all solicitors are qualified to act for clients. More information on this and how to find a solicitor can be found at the Law Society website here.

If a solicitor represents you, they will be able to recommend a barrister if and when necessary.

Suzanne Alexander, Lecturer in Civil Litigation

Worcester Law School          

DISCLAIMER: This article should not be regarded as constituting legal advice in relation to particular circumstances. This article is merely a general comment on the relevant topic. 

Published on 1st June 2015
(Last updated 28th March 2018)

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