One of the most fundamental questions you must address when considering a career in the law is whether to become a solicitor or a barrister. Simply put, a barrister appears in court, while a solicitor works in a law firm. The term ‘lawyer’ applies to both.
However, the differences are much more complex. Some say it comes down to being an individualist (barrister) or a team player (solicitor). While it is true that a barrister is almost always self-employed and bound to other barristers only by convenience, and a solicitor may be just one worker in a law firm of thousands of people, in reality, the situation is less black and white. Barristers are often involved in teamwork and some solicitors may spend many hours on their own in a locked room drafting opinions.
This decision as to which strand suits you best rests on a number of factors concerning your abilities, temperament and - dare we say it - financial circumstances. Here’s a general guide to help you decide.
Fantastic academics are the ideal underpinnings of every legal career. You will generally find a pretty close correlation between the best academic scores and the best (or at least the best-paying) jobs in the legal profession. It may be slightly more important for the Bar as it is smaller and consequently more selective. The Bar is also probably rather more weighted to the traditional universities, to which the Oxbridge-heavy tenant lists at many chambers testify (the Bar is doing its best to address this bias, however).
Again, having been the head prefect is an impressive achievement whichever strand you choose. However, positions of responsibility are concerned with keeping hierarchies in order and thus could be described as management training. For this reason they may be better valued by firms of solicitors.
Even stevens on this one. Sporting prowess implies drive, teamwork and organisational skills. Some sports may lend themselves better to one branch of the profession or the other (eg, team sports for would-be solicitors and individual sports for the Bar), but really all are good for both.
These are highly relevant skills for both branches of the profession. You will be in the business of conveying information and ideas whether you are a solicitor or barrister. However, the courtroom side of a barrister’s work is a direct application of these attributes, so the Bar may value them slightly higher.
Whatever you do in the law you will, at some level, be involved in running a business - be it as a small cog in a huge firm or as a self-employed person at the Bar. Furthermore, you will often be working to assist the businesses of others. Firms of solicitors no longer provide purely legal advice, but are employed as business advisers with an eye on overall strategy. Barristers are more typically ‘hired hands’ for advocacy or for preparing highly specific legal opinions.
At trainee or pupil level, nobody expects you to know the law inside out. What they do expect is for you to have a relatively sophisticated grasp of the profession, its activities and its rhythms, as a way of showing that you have thought sensibly about why you want to become a lawyer. One of the best ways of doing this is to find a law (or law-related) environment in which you can learn what it’s all about.
As we saw above, the ability to communicate is the fundamental tool of the trade. The better you are at communicating, the better a lawyer you will be. Again, the fact a barrister is regularly standing up and talking in court means this skill is more important at the Bar.
The law is a sociable profession in which you can expect to meet large numbers of people from all walks of life. Crucially, you must be able to get on with your clients and other lawyers with whom you work. The legal community is intimate and incestuous; it helps to be able to fit in and get on. Yes, there are legendary curmudgeons floating around (particularly at the Bar), but don’t think it’s advisable to become one of them. If you become a barrister, you’ll need social skills to stay onside with the clerks – they decide whether you work or not!
You’ll need a fair amount of self-reliance and self-belief whatever you do in law. The solicitor generally has a more definite career structure, but after a certain point (especially towards partnership), it’s dog eat dog. As a barrister, though, you are literally on your own. It’s your career and you’ve got to make it happen, make the most of it and deal with the quiet times. If you need more structure, then think again.
In reality, the area of law in which you end up will be the greatest driver of the intellectual content of your work. However, if you want to be a really serious analyst and provider of opinions on heavyweight points of law, then the Bar may be for you - especially as the ‘backroom boys’ at firms of solicitors are considered to be a dying breed.
Quite clearly, it is right and proper that a career in the law should be available to all. That said, the relevant training (especially at postgraduate level) means that it is not uncommon for individuals to finish the LPC or BPTC with over £40,000-worth of debt. Before you rack up this kind of bill, be realistic about your job prospects.
Do you like wearing tights? Gowns? Wigs? Do you feel that panto should be staged all year round? The Bar values tradition above virtually any calling and the outfits reflect this. Solicitors’ dress is, by contrast, dull, dull, dull (even on Fridays).
There remain many commendable organisations and individuals in the legal profession who work tirelessly to beat injustice and ensure that right prevails. Furthermore, the grandest and greatest may well be involved in something socially useful (usually trumpeted all round town as 'pro bono'), but don’t be fooled; the law is an industry like any other and should be treated as such.
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