Solicitor or Barrister? How to Choose the Legal Career That’s Right For You

About the Author
Samantha Love read Law at Merton College, Oxford, and is currently following the BCL course.Barrister's wig and judge's gavel

The English and Welsh legal system still maintains a division between solicitors and barristers; in essence, the latter are advocates whilst the former work on all aspects of a legal matter. Different skill sets are required for each and each has its own pathway into practice.

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Deciding which is for you is one of the most important choices you will make as a law student, and for many there is more to the decision as to whether or not they feel confident standing up and speaking in court. Indeed, with the formerly sharp distinction between barrister and solicitor becoming increasingly blurred in recent years, the decision is perhaps more complex than it once was. This guide should help map out some factors that may influence your decision, though of course each one weighs differently for each person.

Type of work and key skills

Image shows a law casebook with a highlighter pen on it.
Make a reasonable assessment of your abilities here: if you hate public speaking but you’ve got a great head for numbers and minutiae, you should probably go down the solicitor route.

Obviously the biggest difference here is that barristers represent clients in courts and tribunals, though the amount of time spent in court will vary according to your area of practice. Solicitors, in contrast, may go to court if they work in a dispute team or a specialist criminal firm but will be sat behind the barrister and won’t speak directly to the judge or jury (more on solicitor-advocates later). Advocacy skills are therefore crucial to life as a barrister; you need to be a clear and confident speaker.
Another important feature of life as a barrister is that you don’t have the same support network which is available to solicitors. You tend to work alone or with a pupil barrister (or under a senior when you start out yourself), so barristers need to be able to work on their own initiative and manage their own work to a greater extent. Solicitors tend to work in teams with more administrative and research support from paralegals and secretaries, so you’re not quite on your own as much. If you thrive best in a team situation then working for a firm may well be preferable, whereas many work best on their own.

A last important difference is that solicitors’ work can cover a whole process and all types of work within their area of expertise. For instance, commercial solicitors will draft documents for all types of legal relation in their area (employment contracts, pension schemes, mergers and acquisitions, tender bids) whereas barristers will tend only to be involved in contentious work, i.e. when something has gone wrong, or be hired to give a second legal opinion on difficult points. If you’re more interested in the day-to-day aspects of your chosen area of work, then with the exception of criminal law you will see a greater range of work as a solicitor. This does mean that you approach things from a different angle though – as a commercial solicitor you are expected to have much more of a ‘business head’. It’s a case of asking yourself which would suit you more.

Career path, finance and risk

Image shows old-fashioned weighing scales with a large stack of UK banknotes on one side.
Flexibility vs. stability and high gains vs. low risk? It’s not quite that simple.

If you’re coming out of university with a degree, then you’re equally well-placed to become a barrister or solicitor – theoretically at least. If you have a non-law degree then you need to do the Graduate Diploma in Law, which gives you a grounding in the legal subjects the regulator requires all lawyers to have a grasp of. Then future solicitors take the Legal Practice Course then do a two-year training contract, whereas would-be barristers undertake the Bar Professional Training Course and then complete pupillage. There are a few things to bear in mind about the relative cost and risk of these though:
– The GDL, LPC and the BPTC are expensive. Many of the larger law firms will offer to pay for your LPC (and GDL if appropriate) when they offer you a training contract, along with an award to pay for your living costs whilst you are studying. If you’re set on working in a smaller or regional firm then you may have more difficulty getting help with funding and may have to do your LPC before you apply for training contracts. As for the BPTC, the Inns of Court have large scholarship pots to help with the associated costs, so get your applications in on time (and preferably early) for those. If you don’t receive an award then it might be worth thinking about what this may say about your chances of getting pupillage before you think about funding yourself.
– Training contracts are not a promise of a future job, but at certain firms there is a strong presumption that you will stay there when you qualify. Take a good look at the firm’s current retention rates when you apply, and ask yourself whether you’re happy with those odds. The numbers are currently quite high in the larger firms – around 90% in some at the moment – though be aware that many people leave to do something else after a few years so there’s not as much long-term stability as this would suggest. It’s good to know that there is room for you to stay if you prove yourself though, whereas…
– Pupillage is also not a promise of tenancy, and nor is it easy to secure in the first place. It is not uncommon to have to apply at least twice for pupillage; it’s just so competitive. Be prepared to spend a year honing your CV with other work if you are set on the Bar. And when you do get it, the chambers often will not have room to keep all/both pupils on at the end of your time, meaning another set of applications for you to do.
– Most barristers are self-employed; solicitors are on a salary. If you’re after a little more stability in your earnings then remember that 80% of barristers are self-employed and rely on their own reputations to keep the work (and money) coming in. This definitely has its benefits: you have more flexibility if you want to take leave, providing of course you have no ongoing cases, because you are in charge of your own workload. Solicitors in contrast have the same package as other employed people – paid leave and a guaranteed monthly salary, as opposed to long waits for a client to pay a fee.
– As to income, it depends on the area you work in. Everyone knows that high-flying commercial barristers and City solicitors have a high income. However, not all lawyers earn as much and it depends on both the area of law and the country you work in, and the level you work at. For instance, high street solicitors have a more modest income, in exchange for a better work-life balance. You need to ask yourself where the ideal balance lies for you; this may of course change over time, and it’s not uncommon to start off in London and move into something less time-consuming as you get older.
There’s a lot to think about here, and it boils down to this: whether you want to be a barrister or solicitor, qualifying without financial support and a training contract/ pupillage offer can be a risky business, so think carefully before you take the leap. And if it’s important to you either to have flexibility in your work or to have a stable income each month, life as a barrister and solicitor can be very different.

Not so clear-cut; the employed Bar and solicitor-advocates

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The Army Legal Services is a growing part of the British Army.

If the decision between being a solicitor and barrister sounds a little too much like a bright line between two types of fascinating work, you’re in luck! The division is not quite as clear as it may seem, or as it once was.
Firstly, 20% of the Bar is in fact employed. They work for the Government Legal Service, in firms, in business, for the Armed Forces, and (most well-known) for the Crown Prosecution Service. If you like the idea of doing some advocacy work but also lots of advisory work without the uncertainty of being self-employed in chambers, then this is a good career path to start thinking about. The Government Legal Service for example offers pupillages which are conducted partly in the department and partly in external chambers, and the work is completely unique – how many people get to draft legislation?
Solicitor-advocates are solicitors with rights of audience in certain courts; rather than instructing a barrister a solicitor-advocate can represent a client in court. This offers an opportunity to combine the advocacy work of a barrister with the stability and full involvement in a matter which a solicitor gets. Barristers are still generally used for high-profile cases, but solicitor-advocates are certainly picking up cases at the lower levels – leading to concerns that they’re taking away the cases which pupil barristers usually cut their teeth on. With all the current concerns about the future of the Bar, especially the Criminal Bar, life as a solicitor-advocate may be a safer prospect. That said, moving across later is always an option so there may not be a need to play the long game here.

Don’t forget the rest!

Hopefully it’s becoming clear that the barrister/solicitor distinction isn’t as clear as it may seem. It also isn’t the be-all and end-all. There are plenty of other legal careers to think about, including the third sector or in-house work. The Law Commission takes on graduates for one-year contracts each year, which provides a great year of experience if you’re still thinking about your future career. Or you could always go a little further off the beaten track and think about work in the Civil Service other than the GLS such as the Competition Commission (about to be merged with the Office of Fair Trading), or a career in politics or even legal journalism. There’s also the possibility of working in academia too of course, if you really enjoy the theoretical elements of your degree. Don’t get too worried about choosing between the ‘big two’ if neither of them really appeals!

A personal choice, and how to make it

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Spending some time using your legal skills at work (for instance as a paralegal or with a charity involved in legal work) can be a good way to get the practical experience you need to make your decision.

Obvious as this sounds, there is no ‘best’ legal career – you have to pick what suits you. Each profession will suit a certain personality type, both in terms of the work and the atmosphere- there will inevitably be a difference between working for a chambers with different clients each week, and working in-house for one company. And the only way to really know which is best for you is to get as much experience as possible. Apply to vacation placements at firms and mini-pupillages, spend time in courts and tribunals and see if you’d enjoy being there on a regular basis, apply to smaller firms and regional chambers if they appeal, look for schemes with alternative employers such as the Government Legal Service. Most of this won’t be available until the end of your second year, so until then get involved in anything which might give you an idea of what will suit you. This might include mooting or pro bono work through your university law society, or getting involved in running the society itself to give you as many contacts as possible. All this helps you make your decision, and has the added benefit of helping to prove to anyone you end up interviewing with that you know exactly what you’re getting yourself into. All legal careers are highly competitive; nobody just wanders into pupillage or a training contract any more.
Speak to careers advisors at university, and tutors or mentors if you have one you can speak to. Do spend a lot of time thinking about this! But also remember that it isn’t a decision you will be stuck with for the rest of your life; movement between professions is possible, especially going in-house rather than crossing ‘the great divide’. Get yourself off to a good start and doors should stay open to you!
Lastly, don’t worry if one or the other career does not seem to be your destiny from the moment you decide to become a lawyer. It’s not uncommon to find yourself still thinking about this at the end of your penultimate year as you start thinking about training contract applications, or later if you decide to wait to do your applications after your degree and spend some time working first, for example as a paralegal.
Good luck!

Image credits: textbook; scales; army; desk