If you rarely speak to a solicitor, therefore, you have hopefully suffered few, if any, of the challenges in that short list. As a result, however, you might have little understanding of the workings of the legal world. In a time of trouble, you might find yourself saying: ‘I need a solicitor…I think. Do I? Or do I need a lawyer? Or a barrister? What’s the difference? Who does what exactly?’
Firstly, a lawyer is any person who practises or studies law. Both solicitors and barristers are therefore types of lawyer. (In the US, qualified lawyers appointed to act for other parties in legal matters are commonly called ‘attorneys’.) A lawyer is able to give advice in one or more areas of law.
So how exactly might a solicitor help you? Solicitors can offer expert, confidential advice and support to clients in areas including residential property, commercial property, employment law, wills and tax planning, probate and trusts, divorce and family law, disputes and litigation, medical negligence and personal tax. Having earlier mentioned some of the ‘negative’ matters we associate with lawyers, let’s redress the balance by looking at some of the uplifting tasks carried out by solicitors:
- Conveyancing, which is the legal process of transferring property from one owner to another owner. True, moving house can be stressful but a new home can also mark the start of an exciting new life.
- Helping you start your own business and supporting companies with the legal aspects of commercial transactions. A solicitor can assist with matters such as protecting intellectual property, taxation and gaining access to finance.
- Supporting individuals by advising people of their rights, ensuring those people are treated fairly by public or private bodies and making sure clients receive compensation after unfair treatment by a third party.
- Providing free help to vulnerable members of society unable to pay for legal services.
For a solicitor, clients can range from individuals to groups and from private companies to public sector organisations.
How, then, do barristers differ from solicitors? As outlined above, barristers, like solicitors, are lawyers qualified to provide expert legal advice. Generally, however, barristers in England and Wales are hired by solicitors to represent cases in court and only become involved when advocacy before a court is needed. (‘Advocacy’ means pleading a case on someone else’s behalf. In Scotland, the equivalent role to a barrister is called an ‘advocate’.) Barristers, therefore, put arguments to judges and juries, as well as questioning witnesses, trying to influence the outcome of the court case. Ordinarily, barristers have far fewer dealings with members of the public than solicitors.
Barristers normally specialise in particular areas of law such as criminal law, chancery law (trusts and estates), entertainment law and sports law.
Most barristers in England and Wales are self-employed, often working alongside other barristers in offices known as chambers.