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The Legal Profession in England & Wales Explained: Solicitors & Barristers

By Victoria Cromwell, Head of U.K. Programmes, BARBRI International

What does it mean to be a lawyer in England and Wales?

Here, the legal profession is split into two distinct branches: solicitors and barristers. While these roles overlap to an extent, they represent two very different qualification paths for aspiring lawyers. Let’s take a look at both routes to legal practice.

The Role of the Solicitor

Solicitors provide legal advice to their clients over a wide range of practice areas, ranging from buying and selling houses to helping businesses with the legal issues arising from commercial transactions. Solicitors are able to represent their clients in lower courts and, with training known as Higher Rights of Audience, can become solicitor advocates and represent them in higher courts. This is usually a right only given to barristers.

If you chose the path of solicitor, you may work in private practice in a law firm, as part of the legal department of an organisation (known as working “in-house”), or for local or central government. Currently, there are around 136,000 practising solicitors in England and Wales regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority.

Route to Qualification as a Solicitor

There are two primary routes to qualification as a solicitor in England and Wales for domestic students: via a qualifying law degree or a non-qualifying law degree. Legal apprenticeships are also available, as is a route to qualification through the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx).

After obtaining a qualifying law degree, law students sit the Legal Practice Course (usually a year in duration) and then undertake a practice-based two year period of recognised training, or a training contract, as a trainee solicitor. Those students with a non-qualifying law degree need to do an additional period of study and take a course known as the Common Professional Examination (CPE) or a Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL), which is effectively a conversion course, and then progress on to the Legal Practice Course and training contract like students with qualifying law degrees.

All prospective solicitors also need to undertake the Professional Skills Course, which is usually completed during the period of recognised training. On completion of the training described above, an aspiring solicitor can be admitted to the Roll of Solicitors in England and Wales.

It’s worth noting that after autumn 2021, the opportunity to take the existing domestic routes to qualification (CPE, GDL, LPC), and the current route to qualify as a solicitor in England & Wales for foreign-qualified lawyers, the Qualified Lawyers Transfer Scheme (QLTS), will be limited due to the new Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE). The SQE is due to replace all previous routes to qualification. For more information on the SQE and how it will affect your route to qualification, view the BARBRI SQE calculator.

The Role of the Barrister

The Bar Council which regulates barristers in England and Wales in the public interest defines barristers as:

“…specialist legal advisers and courtroom advocates. They are independent, objective and trained to advise clients on the strengths and weaknesses of their case. They have specialist knowledge and experience in and out of court, which can make a substantial difference to the outcome of a case.”

Barristers (or Counsel, as they are often referred to) are usually self-employed and take tenancy in a set of chambers. Chambers are occupied by groups of barristers who often specialise in the same practice area and share the cost of premises, etc. Currently, there are around 16,000 practising barristers in England and Wales. These are the lawyers who wear the wigs and gowns!

Unlike solicitors who are retained or instructed directly by their clients, barristers are typically instructed by solicitors to act on behalf of their clients. Although clients can now instruct barristers directly, this practise is still unusual.

Barristers were historically the only lawyers permitted to represent clients in the higher courts. However, this is no longer the case with the introduction of solicitor advocates. Barristers often specialise and advise on complex areas of the law, and advise solicitors on points of law on complicated or unusual cases. This is known as obtaining an opinion from counsel.

All barristers are initially known as ‘Junior Counsel’ until they become Queen’s Counsel (QC for short), which is a recognition of outstanding ability. The process of becoming QC is known as “taking silk”, on account of the different (silk) robes that QCs wear. Barristers are all members of one of the four Inns of Court based in London: Gray’s Inn, Lincoln’s Inn, Inner Temple, and Middle Temple.

The General Council of the Bar is the approved regulator of the Bar of England and Wales. It discharges its regulatory functions through the independent Bar Standards Board.

Route to Qualification as a Barrister

Much like solicitors, barristers can start their qualification journey by undertaking a qualifying law degree or a non-qualifying law degree and CPE/GDL course. Aspiring barristers must then successfully pass the Bar Course Aptitude Test and join an Inn of Court before commencing the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC), which can either be taken over one year full-time or two years part-time. The BPTC is a vocational course designed to give students the skills required for their careers as barristers. It includes advocacy and exercises in drafting legal documents and writing opinions. Having completed the training requirements set out above, a student would be “called to the Bar”. At this time, they are considered a qualified barrister but will not be permitted to practise until they have completed pupillage.

Pupillage is the final stage of training to become a barrister―a period of training under the supervision of a barrister. Pupillage lasts for 12 months and is usually undertaken in a set of barristers’ chambers. Pupils are required to complete an Advocacy Training Course in their first six months and a Practice Management course in their second six months. After the pupillage year, a pupil would hope to be offered tenancy in the chambers where they undertook their pupillage.

Your 1:1 Study Guide is Ready to ‘Show You the Ropes’

By Anastasia Kalinina, Legal Coordinator, QLTS Prep by BARBRI

You are making a sound investment in your legal career by taking the Qualified Lawyers Transfer Scheme (QLTS) assessments. Way to go!

You undoubtedly see the value in dual qualifying as a solicitor in one of the preferred legal jurisdictions for global trade and dispute resolution. By passing the QLTS, you will have the capability and expertise to work with international clients, deal with cross-border transactions, and understand the differences between U.K. and international law.

Admittedly, passing each QLTS assessment will take detailed and intense preparation. The best way to ensure you are well-prepared is to invest in a proven and focused QLTS training provider―one that will get to know your individual needs for learning and provide you with the right guidance. Why not rely on the largest legal exam and education company in the world to get you there: QLTS Prep by BARBRI.

Receive MCT Support from Professional Mentors

When you prepare with QLTS Prep by BARBRI for the Multiple Choice Test (MCT), you learn from the best faculty in exam preparation, including experienced English solicitors and barristers who teach you the substantive law for each subject tested and who mentor you throughout your time in the programme. I encourage you to speak with a BARBRI team member prior to enrolling in the programme to make the most of your studies to sit the QLTS exam.

Becoming a solicitor requires hard work and conviction; however, you can rely on the support of our expert 1:1 BARBRI mentors who are all deeply committed to helping you pass the QLTS. Think of the dedicated mentor you receive when you enrol with BARBRI as your personal study coach. Together, you develop a study plan to suit your strengths and weaknesses and individual circumstances.

This person is with you every step of the way and knows where you are in the study process at all times. That way, they are able to offer tailored help based on what you are studying, can see where you might need a bit more focus, and can step in with the proper resources and inspiration.

Because your one-on-one mentor has often been through a similar learning experience to get where they are, they are in a good position to “show you the ropes”. But what’s especially unique about our mentors, is that they are able to provide you personalised feedback throughout the course.

I’ve had candidates tell me they got great value out of their mentor in such areas as learning how to approach systematic problem solving, or gaining confidence in answering tons of multiple-choice questions under time pressure. But most of all having, the support of someone “cheerleading” you throughout the whole process makes it seem somehow less daunting.

On to the OSCE: Meet Your Dedicated BARBRI Tutor

So you passed the MCT portion of the QLTS exam. Great job!! Your 1:1 support from BARBRI does not end there.

As you embark on the next stage of the QLTS, the Objective Structured Clinical Examination (OSCE), you will receive the support of a member of our dedicated team of tutors for the duration of your studies. BARBRI’s OSCE tutors are experts in preparation for the skills assessments you will face in this portion of the exam, including client interviewing, advocacy, and legal drafting/research/writing. In addition to this regular support, your tutor will also conduct 1:1 practice and feedback sessions on all of the skills covered in the OSCE exam.

Our tutors build a strong rapport with their students throughout the course, and regularly receive high marks for their attention to detail and personalised guidance. When you decide to enhance your career as an international lawyer, you really can’t go wrong with BARBRI as your study partner.

Common Law vs. Civil Law: An Introduction to the Different Legal Systems

By Victoria Cromwell
Head of QLTS Prep by BARBRI

The legal systems of different countries around the world typically follow either the common law or the civil law, or, in some cases, a combination of the two.

Broadly speaking, a common law system is based on the concept of judicial precedent. Judges take an active role in shaping the law here, since the decisions a court makes are then used as a precedent for future cases. Whilst common law systems have laws that are created by legislators, it is up to judges to rely on precedents set by previous courts to interpret those laws and apply them to individual cases.

In certain common law countries, courts (such as the Supreme Court of the United States) have the ability to strike down laws that were passed by legislators if those laws are deemed unconstitutional in violation of federal law. By contrast, in the United Kingdom, the concept of parliamentary sovereignty means that legislation can only be amended or revoked by Parliament, not the courts.

Civil law systems, on the other hand, place much less emphasis on precedent than they do on the codification of the law. Civil law systems rely on written statutes and other legal codes that are constantly updated and which establish legal procedures, punishments, and what can and cannot be brought before a court.

In a civil law system, a judge merely establishes the facts of a case and applies remedies found in the codified law. As a result, lawmakers, scholars, and legal experts hold much more influence over how the legal system is administered than judges.

How We Got Here

Both civil law and common law systems originated in Europe. Prior to 1066 and the Norman Conquest, the United Kingdom had no coherent legal system, and was instead made up of customs that applied to different parts of the country. William the Conqueror was the first King to unite these accumulated customs and traditions and create courts and a legal system common to the whole country, hence the term “common law”.

The common law system developed alongside the courts of equity which devised remedies to legal issues based on fairness and equality to counter the sometimes rigid common law. The decisions of these courts were recorded and published, and it therefore became possible for the judiciary to look at previous decisions (precedents) and apply them to the case at hand.

Judicial precedent therefore works on the basis of the principle of stare decisis, a Latin phrase which means “let the decision stand”. The common law now has certain rules. For example, only certain parts of a judgment becoming binding precedent, and only if handed down by a superior court.

By contrast, civil law can be traced back to Roman law. The use of a codified system here allows for primary sources of law to be recorded in legal codes, which are intended to cover the law in a particular area.

The legal system of the United Kingdom is classified as a common law system, similar to the U.S., although there are many codified laws in the form of statutes. This is in contrast to our European neighbours such as France, Germany, Italy, and Spain, where the legal systems are entirely codified and therefore operate on a civil law basis.

Taking the QLTS as a Civil-Qualified Lawyer

Although there are fundamental differences between the two systems of justice, both common law and civil law have become global legal traditions that continue to effectively shape the justice systems of hundreds of countries. Both affect how business is conducted within a specific jurisdiction. Both affect how international business is carried out.

Because common law and civil law are basic concepts for justice systems around the world, they are essential to understand for anyone who wants to learn more about legal tradition, either at home or abroad, and who may be on a path to dual qualification. The biggest challenge for a lawyer coming from a civil law background who wishes to qualify in England and Wales is understanding the concept of judicial precedent and judge-made law itself. This is tested in the MCT portion of the QLTS exam, as a fundamental part of the English Legal System. Similarly, civil law jurisdictions do not have the concept of equitable principles or trust law, so these are areas where civil law-qualified lawyers might struggle.

French employment law attorney Crésence Agbattou knows this struggle all too well. “At first it was quite challenging to wrap my head around differing concepts, such as the rule of precedent, and especially the lack of a Constitution as the basis of the law,” she said. “QLTS Prep by BARBRI helped me master common law rules, and the MCT, by having me commit to practise exercises on a daily basis. Once I overcame the early learning challenges, I found it very interesting to navigate between civil law and common law to improve my work expertise.”

BARBRI offers prep courses for the QLTS to help lawyers with varying backgrounds better understand the globalised legal system to qualify as solicitors in England and Wales. Find out more or enrol here.