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What is the difference between a lawyer, solicitor and barrister?

In: General News

So you find yourself in need of legal advice. But who should you turn to for assistance: a lawyer, solicitor or barrister? What actually is the difference between them? And who is best placed to help you?

In the UK, a ‘lawyer’ is an umbrella term for any Licensed Legal Practitioner; this includes barristers, solicitors and legal executives. To use an analogy, ‘lawyer’ is akin to ‘wine’, with ‘barrister’, ‘solicitor’ and ‘legal executive’ being akin to white wine, red wine and rosé; they’re all wine but are best suited to different situations.

All of these types of legal experts specialise in certain areas of law and provide advice to their clients (a client can be an individual, group or public or private company). However there are also several key differences.


What is their role in one sentence? 

Solicitors take instructions directly from their client and advise and support them throughout the litigation of their case, but generally will not represent them in court.

What do they do?

  • Communication, coordination and negotiation: Solicitors will liaise with the other side and any other third parties, and will coordinate any work which needs to be undertaken jointly by both sides in the case (for example, when both parties need to jointly instruct a third party, such as a forensic psychologist). Communication with the other side can also include negotiating a settlement.
  • Paperwork: They will prepare applications and forms after taking a client’s instructions, and also can draw up contracts.
  • Preparation for court: They will organise all the necessary papers for court and instructions for your barrister or specialist advocate.

A legal executive will have the same level of expertise as a solicitor and can carry out the same tasks, but they will specialise in a narrower area of law.

How do they charge?

Solicitors tend to charge an hourly rate which is calculated based on their level of experience and seniority. However, a firm may have fixed fee schemes for certain types of case (for example, divorce).

What else do I need to know?

The same solicitors firm cannot represent two people on opposing sides of a case, as this would be a conflict of interests. This is true even if there is no ill-will between the two parties.

It is also worth noting that at a solicitors firm, generally the same individual will handle your case throughout. However, you could potentially choose to use a different barrister (from the same or different chambers) each time you appear in court.



What is their role in one sentence? 

Barristers, sometimes referred to as ‘counsel’, advise their clients and represent them in court.

What do they do?

  • Represent clients in court: The main duty of the barrister is to take all the information provided by the client/solicitor and make it palatable and persuasive to the court. While at court, they will present this argument on behalf of their client, and may even examine and cross-examine witnesses.
  • Negotiations: Barristers can liaise between their client and the other side’s barrister to try to reach an agreement which is then presented to the court for approval. This negotiation process can happen while on court premises.

How do they charge?

Barristers tend to charge a fixed fee (subject to certain conditions). This fee will vary according to their seniority; so a barrister who is appointed ‘Queen’s Counsel’ (an honour awarded for excellence in advocacy in the higher courts) will have a higher fee than most other counsel.

What else do I need to know?

Unlike solicitors, the majority of barristers are self-employed (circa 80%). The majority of these self-employed barristers are based in ‘chambers’. These are offices shared with other barristers who specialise in the same field or fields.

Because barristers are self-employed, two barristers from the same chambers can work on opposite sides of a case without issue.

However, to keep barristers from cherry-picking cases, there is the ‘Cab Rank Rule’. This states that if a barrister receives instructions from a client which are appropriate for his or her level of experience, seniority and area of practice, and would be paid at his or her usual rates, the barrister must accept those instructions regardless of the identity of the client, nature of the case, type of funding (private or public) and any personal beliefs the barrister might hold.



Blurring the lines

As you have most likely noticed, there are several areas of overlap between barristers and solicitors. And in recent years, the lines have become increasingly blurred. So how do you know you definitely need a solicitor as opposed to a barrister, or vice versa?

Do I really need a barrister?

Some solicitors do also work as advocates, meaning they can represent their clients in court. However, for complex cases they will generally need to instruct a barrister.

Do I really need a solicitor?

The Public Access Scheme allows clients to instruct barristers through ‘Direct Access’. This means the barrister could advise the client, prepare certain papers and represent the client in court without the input of a solicitor.

However, not all barristers can accept direct instruction, and would still require a solicitor or legal executive to act as an intermediary. Furthermore, some tasks cannot be undertaken by a barrister and would have to be undertaken by a solicitor; for example, issuing applications at court. It is also worth noting that under direct access, the client would need to do much more of the paperwork and prepare any instructions themselves in order to directly instruct the barrister.


The short answer is that which type of lawyer you require depends on your situation and that it is best to enquire with a solicitors firm or barristers chambers directly so you can discuss the specifics of your case.

If you think you may need a solicitor for your family law case, please call us on 02076081227 to discuss your enquiry. With over 30 years of experience, we are ideally placed to assist you with your case.



By Jessamine McHugh