Law can seem complex and varied, comprised of a host of legal terms that can be a lot to wrap your head around as you study for your legal career. There are many different legal positions on offer, from lawyer and solicitor to barristers and legal associates but what is the difference between a lawyer and a solicitor and how can you choose which path is the best for you?
What is a lawyer?
Lawyer can generally be seen as an umbrella term for various different legal jobs. It essentially means anyone who is officially licensed to practice law and part of their job includes taking on clients to represent in court, giving legal aid and acting on behalf of clients for negotiations in lawsuits and settlement agreements.
Lawyer includes everything from solicitors to barristers and arbitrators. Not every legal job makes you a lawyer though. Paralegals for example are not fully qualified lawyers though the administrative work and legal aid they provide to their law firm makes it a good entry-level position for recent graduates and opens the door to becoming a lawyer in the future.
Significantly, lawyer is not an officially recognised job in the British legal world unlike in the United States. It does not describe any specific position in a law firm, meaning solicitor is a much more accurate term for someone working in law.
However, you don’t have to have a law degree to become a lawyer. These days there are alternative routes into a career as a legal professional. Our guide to law conversion courses can help if you are interested in a career in the law but haven’t studied, or don’t want to study, for a law degree.
What is a solicitor?
Solicitors are the primary providers of legal aid and advice, handling the paperwork of the clients as well as any paperwork for potential court cases.
Their job doesn’t generally take them to represent cases in court, instead holding the responsibility of finding alternative solutions for their clients such as settlements with the opposition.
They are in charge of drafting new contracts and handling the clients’ issues, showcasing an in-depth knowledge of legal proceedings and an understanding of local law systems, enabling them to help clients as much as possible. This is vital for a solicitor as they will have regular face-to-face contact with a client to help build an understanding of their case.
Solicitors can work in various types of law including criminal law, property law and family law. This means their responsibilities can include anything from assisting clients who have been released on bail to handling property sales and handling cases of domestic violence and child guardianship.
What sort of cases do solicitors work on?
Solicitors are lawyers who train in one or more specific areas of the law including; intellectual property, immigration, public law, human rights, corporate finance and tax, family law and many more.
Generally, solicitors handle all legal proceedings that aren’t criminal cases. Solicitors are usually contacted by clients to advise on any legal issues they may be facing, including contract drafting, sales and acquisitions of businesses or property and the protection of intellectual property.
After being contacted by a client, or ‘instructed’, solicitors will handle all the required legal proceedings including providing advice on the available courses of action, drafting legal documents, contracting other parties and all the required paperwork.
If required by the case, solicitors will also negotiate on behalf of their client to secure relevant deals to ensure all parties are compliant in the legal proceedings, calculate compensation and settle damages.
The most common instances where people will instruct the help of a solicitor is when buying or selling property. In these cases, a client will contact a solicitor who specialises in property law. They’ll be called on to draft a contract for the purchase or sale of the property and will handle the conveyancing of the property.
Do solicitors go to court?
Solicitors can go to court to advocate for their clients if necessary for the case, such as to settle a divorce or represent their client in a family law case.
However, if the case is particularly complex or involves criminal charges, the solicitor will usually enlist the help of a barrister or specialist in that particular area of the law. This is due to the structure of the UK legal system and because barristers are specifically trained in defence and prosecution as part of their education.
How do you become a solicitor?
Until 2021, to become a solicitor you need to either study for an undergraduate law degree or pass the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL), a conversion course that allows anyone educated to degree level in any subject to convert to become a lawyer.
Once you have either of these qualifications, you will need to apply to study for the Legal Practice Course (LPC). This is a year-long, full-time course that covers legal issues and skills including; business law and practice, civil and criminal litigation, property law and practice and advising and advocacy. The LPC can also be split over two years as part-time study at some institutions.
However, in 2021, a new qualification is being introduced to try and make becoming a lawyer more accessible and less costly.
The Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) is a ‘super exam’ that is planned to replace the LPC. Split into two stages, the SQE assesses a candidate’s ability to apply legal knowledge and tests their legal skills in areas such as advocacy and legal drafting.
This new qualification replaces the LPC and means, for people wishing to become solicitors, they’d no longer need to complete the GDL or LPC qualifications. However, candidates will need to educate themselves on the legal knowledge necessary to pass the SQE, so some sort of legal education may be required to gain a foundational understanding of the law.
Additionally, applicants to the SQE are required to complete two years of qualifying work experience in up to four legal organisations.
Other Types of Careers in Law
As the term ‘lawyer’ is an umbrella term for more than just solicitors, it is also important to note the other differences between the various types of jobs in a law firm.
Barristers are an important part of handling clients’ cases as they have the main responsibility of representing clients in court.
Some of their responsibilities include examining and cross examining witnesses, reviewing and presenting evidence and preparing their opening and closing statements for a jury. This involves a lot of research and communication with other barristers and legal professionals
Solicitors can also represent cases in court hearings but generally it is the duty of a barrister.
Like solicitors, arbitrators work on ways to resolve disputes outside of a court setting. They specifically work in alternative dispute resolution.
As they are often brought in as a neutral figure in disputes their judgments are not always legally binding and a client can progress the case to court if they so choose.
They can handle a wide range of cases from player eligibility in sports, shipping disputes and employment disputes such as unfair employment termination. Part of their responsibility is to research and gather evidence from both sides of the dispute to ensure a fair decision is made for both parties involved.
Mediators are common in cases that require someone to help resolve a dispute. This is a significant role in family law and property law in particular, presiding over cases that involve landlords and tenants, divorcing couples or custody battles.
Different types of mediators will be needed depending on the case, whether it be a mediator with a family counselling background or one with deep commercial knowledge for professional disputes.
More often than not, judges have been some kind of lawyer for a while and have accumulated a lot of experience in the field. It is their responsibility to hold court and control hearings, issuing judgments and sentences impartially.
They have the power to overrule objections from barristers, instruct the jury if the case has one and present their own questions to witnesses.
Their work often takes them into chambers as well, establishing rules for court, making decisions on cases based on private counsel appeals and in some cases encourage settlements as a solution.
Ultimately, lawyer represents a whole variety of jobs that can be found in a court or law firm with solicitors being one of the primary positions available and representing a broad definition of the general responsibilities of a lawyer, including some minor overlap with other jobs in the legal field.
The main difference between a lawyer and a solicitor is in the definition of a lawyer being a representative term for all kinds of legal careers while a solicitor is a more specific description of the responsibilities you may have as you explore what you want to do with your future in law.
If you are interested in a career in the law, check out our other blog posts focussed on the legal profession. And, if you’re already a practising legal professional, make sure you’re always looking your best with Tailor De Jure’s range of formal wear, legal gowns, legal wigs and legal accessories.