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Branches of the legal profession

One of the key questions to address when considering a legal career is what type of lawyer you want to be. For many, that will mean deciding between becoming a solicitor or a barrister. For some, the option to ‘earn while you learn’ as a chartered legal executive will appeal.

Simply put, a barrister appears in court, while a solicitor or chartered legal executive works in a law firm. The term ‘lawyer’ applies to all three. However, the differences are much more complex. Some say that it comes down to whether you are an individualist (barrister) or a team player (solicitor/legal executive). While it is true that a barrister is almost always self-employed and connected to other barristers only by convenience, and a solicitor/legal executive 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/ legal executives spend many hours on their own in a room drafting documents.

The decision as to which strand would suit you best rests on a number of factors concerning your abilities, temperament and - dare we say it - financial circumstances. Over the page is a brief guide with some key facts, which may help you to decide.

Solicitors Barristers Chartered legal executives
As of 30 April 2015, there were 132,087 practising solicitors. The total number of solicitors on the roll was 167,147. As of July 2014, 80.9% of barristers (ie, 12,709) were self-employed (not including those in dual practice, registered European lawyers or second six pupils). As of May 2015, there were around 20,000 trainee and practising chartered legal executives.
Women make up around 48% of the profession. However, many fewer women than men are currently at partner level – an average split in private practice is 70% male partners compared to 30% female. Women made up around 35% of all practising barristers (ie, 5,545 women compared to 10,140 men). Women make up around 74% of CILEx members.
Mostly employed in private law firms, so receive regular monthly salary. Mostly self-employed, so receive irregular (but often substantial) fees. Mostly employed in private law firms or in-house, so receive regular monthly salary.
Work mainly with individuals, companies and barristers. Work mainly with solicitors and other barristers. Work mainly with solicitors and individuals.
Office-based, although have some rights of audience. Chambers and court-based. Office-based, although they have some of the same rights of audience as solicitors.
Engage more in ongoing advisory and one-to-one client work. Engage more in one-off advocacy (ie, court cases). Engage more in ongoing advisory and one-to-one client work.
Aspire to become partner – that is, part-ownership of firm and entitlement to a percentage of its profits. Aspire to become Queen’s Counsel (QC) – that is, a top barrister, normally instructed in very serious and complex cases. Since the Legal Services Act 2007, legal executives can become partners or managers in legal disciplinary practices.
The Solicitors Regulation Authority has abolished its minimum annual trainee salary, which means that trainees can be paid the national minimum salary. However, many firms will continue to pay considerably more; a first-year trainee at a large City firm could earn around £38,000, rising to £65,000-plus on qualification. The Bar Standards Board requires that all pupils be paid no less than £12,000 per annum. Many earn much more - upwards of £60,000 in some cases. Starting salaries are usually £15,000 to £28,000 per year while qualifying, while chartered legal executives can expect to earn £35,000 to £55,000, and can earn much higher.

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