What lawyers do
Everyone has their favourite scurrilous lawyer joke, but on the whole it’s not actually a profession made up of conniving ambulance chasers and fat cats. Lawyers perform a valuable role, especially as law is entwined with every aspect of our society - from the age at which you can take your driving test to the speed at which you can drive when you pass it; from the minimum wage you can expect to earn in a new job to the rights you have should you lose it.
The first thing to know is that the profession has two main branches – you can become either a solicitor or a barrister. Generally speaking, solicitors give advice and assistance on matters of law. They are the first point of contact for people and bodies (eg, companies and charities) seeking legal advice and representation. Most solicitors work together in firms, while others work in central or local government, or in a legal department within a company or organisation.
While solicitors are found in a variety of areas of law, the fundamentals of the job remain largely the same. These include:
- meeting clients, finding out their needs and establishing how to help;
- researching relevant areas of law and proposing courses of action to clients;
- drafting letters, contracts and other legal documents; and
- acting on behalf of clients in negotiations and occasionally representing them at tribunals or in court.
Being a solicitor is a tough, but rewarding job. Many of those entering the profession work their way up through the ranks from newly qualified solicitor to associate to partner.
On the other side of the profession, barristers offer advice on specific legal issues and represent clients in court. They receive their information and instructions through a solicitor. When not appearing in court, they work in chambers where they prepare their court cases and arguments. Again, although barristers work in a huge variety of areas of law, the fundamental elements of the job remain largely the same. These include:
- advising clients on the law and the strength of their case;
- holding ‘conferences’ with clients to discuss their case;
- representing clients in court, including presenting the case and cross-examining witnesses; and
- negotiating settlements with the other side.
Upon being called to the Bar, a barrister is known formally as a ‘junior’. He or she remains a junior until such time as he or she is made a Queen’s Counsel (QC), otherwise known as ‘silk’. A QC is a senior barrister of at least 10 years’ practice who is regarded as having outstanding ability – only around 10% of barristers become QCs.
As for the different types of law, they are as multitudinous as grains of sand. However, at the broadest level, you can divide solicitors and barristers between those doing commercial work (ie, work for companies) and those involved with individuals. On the one hand, you could be a banking lawyer scrutinising a major loan by a bank to a corporation; while on the other, you could be a personal injury practitioner advising an individual who has had a fall. Different practice areas are like different jobs: there’s very little that connects the everyday professional life of a human rights solicitor with that of a corporate one.