Things you might not know about solicitors, law firms and the legal profession
In this section, we will explore some of the things that you may not know or that you would like to ask. If there is anything we have missed, lawyers are human after all, please get in touch.
A. What is the difference between a solicitor and a barrister?
There is often a misconception that barristers are superior to solicitors within the legal profession. This is absolutely not the case. They have different roles although in recent years, the roles have become less distinct with ‘higher rights of audience’ for solicitors and ‘direct access’ for barristers:
At its core a barrister is an advocate and will usually spend most of their time in Court. They are skilled in, and practice the art of advocacy. Like solicitors, a barrister will often specialise in certain litigated areas of law including contract law, property law, professional negligence, intellectual property, shipping and transport, to name but a few. With this focus, the barrister will also spend a sizeable amount of time providing legal opinion on whether the client is likely to win their case in Court, whether that is a claimant or a defendant. Some barristers now offer a direct access service whereby they can be instructed directly by a client without the solicitor’s involvement, although, this accounts for a relatively small number of barristers in the legal profession.
A solicitor who does not have ‘higher rights of audience’, may represent clients in Court but this is confined to the Magistrates Court (Criminal) and County Court (Civil). Solicitors may also appear in tribunals, arbitration, public enquires and inquests. A solicitor who does have ‘higher rights of audience’ can represent clients in any Court, just like a barrister, and this includes the appeal courts.
Traditionally, a solicitor will conduct the case from start to finish which includes taking detailed instructions from the client (they are the first point of contact), corresponding with the opponent, exploring whether a compromise can be reached, preparing witness statements and evidence, instructing experts (if necessary), complying with Court orders and directions, and preparing the case for trial including interim hearings. This list goes on. The work of a solicitor may also include instructing the barrister for an advice on the prospects of success, drafting statements of case (documents that set out a parties position) and representing the client at trial. In other words, the barrister will present the case to the Court and persuade the Judge or Jury to find in favour of the client. The work of the solicitor is therefore critical to enabling the barrister to put forward a compelling case to the Court.
B. In a criminal or civil case, if the client instructs their solicitor that they innocent or not liable, can a solicitor still act for a client if they know the client is guilty or culpable?
This is a question that is frequently asked. If the evidence indicates that the client is guilty or liable, subject to the strength of that evidence and any defence that the client may have, the solicitor may advise the client to plead guilty or admit liability. It is then up to the client whether to follow the solicitor’s advice. If the solicitor knows the client is guilty or liable because the client told them so but the client still wants the solicitor to defend them, the solicitor would have to consider their overriding duty to the Court and decline to act.
A solicitor is an officer of the Court and must not, in any way, mislead the Court. In this situation, the solicitor cannot therefore make a submission to the Court which they know not to be true, such as protesting their client’s innocence.