what’s the difference between a barrister and a solicitor?

Barristers and solicitors are all lawyers, but they are different types of lawyers. One is not ‘better’, more experienced or more senior than the other. They have quite different training and expertise and do different types of legal work. The system that operates in England & Wales is a ‘split’ system, where there is a division of labour between these two types of lawyers. In some countries (such as America) there is a a ‘fused’ system where all lawyers can (potentially) do all things, although of course they will tend to specialise.

Barristers are self employed. solicitors are not. they are employed or partners. Barristers aren’t allowed to form partnerships or companies, they trade as sole traders, but group together for economy and marketing under one roof which is called a ‘chambers’.

Because barristers within one chambers are all independent from one another they can act on different sides in the same dispute, but solicitors in the same firm can’t because they aren’t independent and would have a conflict of interests.

Barristers are specialist advocates or specialists in a particular area of law (or both). solicitors do also specialise, and some do their own advocacy, but most solicitors are primarily litigators. this means meeting the client, working out what the case is, sorting out the paperwork, communicating with the other sides’ solicitors and where necessary instructing a barrister to advise about the law or to go to court and represent the client on their behalf.

Barristers spend a lot of their time in court, talking to other barristers, dealing with witnesses giving evidence and addressing the Judge. Solicitors often come to court to support a barrister by taking a note or having the files to hand incase the barrister needs something. Increasingly often a barrister attends court without a solicitor. This is often more cost effective.

A barrister is often paid by the piece of work, i.e. £x to attend for this hearing and £y to draft this document. A solicitor usually bills by the hour. Barristers are usually sent to court because its cheaper than sending a solicitor who bills by the hour or because the barrister is more experienced at dealing with the court side of the process (or both).

A client can instruct a solicitor directly but to instruct a barrister you have to first instruct a solicitor as intermediary and they will instruct a barrister for you. Recently a new scheme has been introduced where a client can instruct a barrister direct through a scheme called ‘public access’ but this is only in certain types of cases and only where the client can effectively act as their own solicitor.

A barrister will often but not always deal with a case all the way through. However because a barrister is usually briefed each time a specific piece of work needs to be done (a hearing, a piece of drafting) there might be different barristers dealing with a case, although the solicitor will remain responsible the whole way through. This is because a solicitor is retained by a client and is responsible for dealing with what comes up as it comes up, but a barrister cannot always be available for a client to attend a particular hearing because these dates are not known at the outset. If a barrister has been previously booked to do something else for another client on the date in question she will have to honour that committment. This called the ‘cab rank rule’ and it is what helps keep barristers independent by preventing them from picking and choosing the cases they want to do unfairly.

Contrary to popular belief both barrsiters and solicitors can become judges, although more judges have come from the bar than from the ranks of solicitors, and still do.

As with everything – the points above are not true all of the time, but they are generally applicable

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25 thoughts on “what’s the difference between a barrister and a solicitor?

  1. “One is not ‘better’, more experienced or more senior than the other”

    Just a matter of point, but in court barristers are referred to as “learned friend” by a solicitor whereas a solicitor is referred to only as a “friend”. This denotes some form of seniority between the two if only as a formality in the court room.

  2. @ AXG: it’s true that there is a tradition of referring to ‘my learned friend’ or ‘my friend’ depending on whether or not one is referring to counsel or solicitor, but I think it’s really a vestigial phrase – little real meaning. If anything it may reflect the greater expertise in advocacy that barristers usually have, but frankly I make a point of referring to opponents as ‘my learned friend’ even if they are solicitors as I think the distinction is artificial and the use of differential terminology comes across as arrogant and out of touch.

  3. Great entry – will be making use of this with my students! Many thanks

  4. Charmaine Clarke

    It is in my opinion that a barrister has more expertise and therefore referred to as a learned friend. The wearng of the tradition regalia would lead one to believe by wearing the wig andgown and solicitors do not, it is also they represent the clients in court and solicitors are less competent in this field.

    • It’s a common misconception to think that barristers are promoted to barrister once they have gained their experience as a solicitor when in fact they are just two different types of lawyers with slightly different skill sets. In many types of hearing neither barrister nor solicitor wears any regalia. Whilst barristers specialise in advocacy more than most solicitors, there are many competent solicitor advocates who do all their own advocacy.

  5. Ouch. In response to the previous comments, there are plenty of solicitor-advocates and solicitors who conduct a significant amount of representation in the tribunals and magistrates courts who are absolutely competent advocates. Many clients actually prefer the continuity of having their solicitor represent them. Equally, some feel more comfortable having counsel represent them.

    Conversely, I have heard of some barristers whose practices mainly consist of advice, drafting and negotiation of settlement rather than lots of attending hearings.

    I think it is also worth mentioning the ILEX legal execs, whom I believe consider themselves the third strand of the legal profession.

    I wouldn’t pay much attention to the wigs and phrases – whilst those of us without them are perhaps secretly a little jealous, everyone is well aware they are really only of historical relevance.

  6. I haven’t heard anyone distinguish between learned and (presumably non-learned) friends for many years. I would be pretty shocked, and seriously pissed off, if anyone did so now. The last time it happened to me, it was some ancient silk who was slapped down pretty sharply by the High Court judge in question for what she saw as discourtesy. Quite right too! He had to apologise and I had to try not to smirk. What I can never figuer out is whether to be annoyed or please when judges assume you are Counsel – I normally take it as a compliment but what it means is that some judges still can’t believe that solicitors can stand on their hind legs and talk at the same time…

  7. I was having doubts concerning the difference between barristers and solicitors, now I am not.
    Thank you :)

  8. [...] Burt) or when I’ve said something to upset them over at F4J. And that old chestnut “What’s the difference between a barrister and a solicitor?” just won’t lie down and [...]

  9. Karen Sullivan

    I have found this blog to be extremely helpful. I’m currently writing a book and find myself requiring information regarding British law as one of my characters is an attorney… but until now I wasn’t sure if he was a barrister or a solicitor. Now I know! Many thanks! I’m sure I’ll be returning here.

  10. Karen, there is no body of jurisprudence called British law. There is English Law, Northern Ireland (NI) law, and Scots law. The first two are broadly similar; the third is quite different.

    The legal profession is split in all three jurisdictions. In Scotland the branch who specialise in advocacy are called “advocates” (very logical, those Scots).

    So do be careful!

  11. The capital L in English Law was not meant as an assertion of superiority – just a typo!

  12. I’m not in the law field. didn’t know they where different until someone corrected a presenter on BBC about being one and not the other; so i took to the internet to find out the difference. this is just to say thanks for taking the time to do this write up

  13. If I want to hire a lawyer to represent me in family matter in a court in Canada. Should I ask him/her for certificate specialist in family law? Lawyer’s license number L 1 What does mean?
    Do they qualify to take any case to the court?
    Does affidavit must be sworn ,sign in front of commissioner? if not does this document has legal value?

  14. That last answer was not rocket science, was it?

  15. I want to become a barrister….
    please guide me….

  16. l have complete my llb.

  17. Chief justice next : waggala isaac

    yes ,,,, this is good to me ..to become a solicitor only you must have a diploma in law..but to become a solicitor at the same time a barrister you must be having a bachelors degree and a bar course and some body with only a diploma in law can not become a barrister ………….. a solicitor is subordinate and a barrister is superior

  18. $hit and Crap both come from the same A$$hole.

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