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 CPE, GDL, LPC, and 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.