What lawyers do
Everyone has their favourite scurrilous lawyer joke, but on the whole it’s not a profession made up of conniving ambulance chasers and fat cats. Lawyers perform a valuable role, especially as law is intertwined 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 traditionally, the profession has had two main branches – solicitors and barristers. However, in recent years the legal landscape has become much more complex, with chartered legal executives, paralegals, apprentices and more. This trend seems set to continue – read more about it in "A changing profession". For now, however, here is a broad introduction to what solicitors and barristers do.
Generally speaking, solicitors provide advice and assistance on matters of law. They are the first point of contact for people and organisations (eg, companies and charities) seeking legal advice and representation. Most solicitors work together in solicitor-owned law firms, while others work in central or local government, in a legal department within a company or organisation, or in an alternative business structure (ABS) – an organisation which provides legal services, but is funded and controlled by a company (eg, the Co-operative Group).
While solicitors are found in a variety of areas of law, the fundamentals of the job remain largely the same. These include a mixture of advisory and contentious (dispute) work, such as:
- 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. (NB Most of the above also describes the work of a chartered legal executive.)
On the other side of the profession, barristers advise on specific legal issues and represent clients in court. They receive their information and instructions through a solicitor and are essentially self-employed. When not appearing in court, they work in chambers where they prepare their court cases and arguments. Again, although barristers work in a wide 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 (when a legal dispute is resolved privately outside of court).
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), also known as ‘taking silk’. A QC is a senior barrister with extensive experience who is regarded as having outstanding ability. The majority of barristers never become QCs.
Areas of law
The different types of law are as multitudinous as grains of sand. However, at the broadest level, you can divide lawyers 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; 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: very little connects the everyday professional life of a human rights solicitor with that of a corporate one. See the snapshots for more detail.
Practice area snapshot
Below is just a small selection of the vast array of practice areas out there:
- Corporate/commercial - commercial and corporate solicitors advise on complex transactions and act for businesses of all sizes, from international corporations to small start-ups. General company law might involve advising on company directors’ rights and responsibilities, board meetings and shareholders’ rights. Corporate work often concerns mergers and acquisitions, demergers, joint ventures and share issues.
- Crime – criminal lawyers advise and represent their clients in court on criminal charges that can range from minor motoring misdemeanours to more serious crimes, including murder. Barristers may be called on to act for either the defence or the prosecution.
- Employment - as a solicitor, you’ll be working on disputes that end up in employment tribunals or in the high court, helping to draft contracts of employment or advising on working hours. Your client could be the employer or employee. As a barrister, you will be appearing on behalf of your client in either a tribunal or court, often in different parts of the country.
- Family - family lawyers deal with all legal matters relating to marriage, separation, divorce, cohabitation and legal issues relating to children. Family law also encompasses financial negotiations, inheritance issues and prenuptial contracts.
- Human rights - this practice area is incredibly wide ranging and includes immigration and asylum cases, privacy cases affecting celebrities and international law issues. Clients may range from low-income refugees and prisoners through to large news organisations and government departments.
- Intellectual property - this involves protecting the exploitation of intellectual ideas, normally by way of copyright, trademarks and patents. IP lawyers advise on issues ranging from commercial exploitation to infringement disputes, and agreements that deal either exclusively with intellectual property or with IP rights as part of larger commercial transactions.
- Private client - private client lawyers advise on all aspects of the financial affairs of clients, including capital gains tax, inheritance tax planning, setting up lifetime trusts and preparing wills. Private client lawyers also handle a wide range of charity work.
- Tax - corporate tax involves advising on the most tax-efficient means of acquiring, relinquishing or restructuring assets, negotiating and documenting the transaction. On the contentious side, corporate tax lawyers advise on all aspects of tax litigation and investigations, negotiate with tax authorities and conduct litigation in the civil courts.