updated on 28 June 2023
One of the most fundamental questions you must address when considering a career in the law is whether to become a solicitor or barrister. To put it simply, barristers appear in court, while solicitors work in law firms.
However, the differences are much more complex than that. Some say that it comes down to whether you are an individualist (barrister) or a team player (solicitor). While it’s true that a barrister is almost always self-employed and bound to other barristers only by convenience, and a solicitor may be just one worker in a law firm of thousands of people, in reality the situation is not so black and white. Barristers are often involved in teamwork and some solicitors may spend many hours on their own drafting documents.
Here’s a general guide to some factors that may help you to decide.
Fantastic academic results are the ideal underpinnings of every legal career. You’ll generally find a close correlation between the best academic scores and the best (or at least the best-paying) jobs in the legal profession. That said, contextual recruitment practices are becoming more common place to avoid unconscious bias in this area, so don’t be put off. Excellent academic results may be slightly more important for the Bar, as it’s smaller and consequently even more selective. The Bar is also rather more weighted towards the traditional universities, to which the Oxbridge-heavy tenant lists at many chambers attest (although the Bar is working to address this bias).
Positions of responsibility
Having been the head prefect or leader of a youth group is an impressive achievement whichever strand you choose. However, positions of responsibility are often concerned with keeping hierarchies in order and thus could be described as management training. For this reason, they may be more highly valued by firms of solicitors that have clear and rigid structures for their employees.
Participating in sport implies drive, teamwork and communication skills, which are ideal for both solicitors and barristers.
These are highly relevant skills for both branches of the profession. Whether you’re a solicitor or barrister, you’ll be in the business of persuading people and conveying information and ideas. However, the courtroom side of a barrister’s work is a direct application of these attributes, so the Bar may value them slightly higher.
Whatever you do in the law, you’ll at some level be involved in running a business – be it as part of a huge firm or as a self-employed person in sole practice or at the Bar. Further, you’ll often be working to assist the businesses of others. Firms of solicitors provide not only legal advice, but are also employed as business advisers with an eye on overall strategy. Barristers are more typically ‘hired hands’ for advocacy or for preparing highly specific legal opinions, but those at the commercial Bar must still appreciate and prioritise the business interests of their clients when preparing to advocate on their behalf.
Legal work experience
At trainee or pupil level, nobody expects you to know the law inside out. What they do expect is for you to have a relatively sophisticated grasp of the profession, its activities and its rhythms, as a way of showing that you’ve thought sensibly about why you want to become a lawyer. One of the best ways of doing this is to find a law (or law-related) environment in which you can learn what it’s all about.
As we saw above, the ability to communicate is the fundamental tool of the trade. The better you are at communicating, the better a lawyer you’ll be. Again, the fact that a barrister must regularly stand up and talk in court means that this skill is more important at the Bar but it’s still a key part of practising as a solicitor.
The law is a sociable profession in which you can expect to meet large numbers of people from all walks of life. Crucially, you must be able to get on with your clients and other lawyers with whom you work. The legal community is intimate and sometimes close-knit; it helps to be able to get on and interact well with others.
You’ll need a fair amount of self-reliance and self-belief whatever you do in law. Solicitors generally have a more definite career structure, but after a certain point it becomes dog eat dog at many firms. As a barrister, though, you’re literally on your own: it’s your career and you’ve got to make it happen, make the most of it and deal with the quiet times. If you’re somebody who craves structure and order, then the Bar might not be for you.
In reality, the area of law in which you end up will be the greatest driver of the intellectual content of your work. However, if you want to be a serious analyst and provider of opinions on heavyweight points of law, then the Bar may be for you.
Quite clearly, it’s right and proper that a career in the law should be available to all. That said, the relevant course fees (especially at postgraduate level) mean that it’s not uncommon for individuals to end up with debts of well over £45,000 in order to enter the profession. Before you rack up this kind of bill, be realistic about your job prospects. And don’t forget that upcoming changes to the way solicitors and barristers qualify will affect the costs of pursuing this career.
Commitment to social justice
There remain many commendable organisations and individuals in the legal profession who work tirelessly to overturn injustice and ensure that right prevails. Many will be involved in something socially useful (ie, pro bono). If changing the world and helping people’s lives is at the core of your desire to become a lawyer, you’ll probably want to consider the barrister route and do some thorough research into areas such as human rights and criminal law.
The decision as to which strand suits you best rests on a number of factors concerning your abilities, temperament and – dare we say it – financial circumstances. Choose wisely.
This table illustrates some of the differences between the two branches of the profession, including demographics, working environments, career progression and salary.
|Number of practising lawyers||As of April 2023, there were 160,432 practising solicitors. The total number of solicitors on the roll was 222,537.||In 2022, there were 17,538 practising barristers. Of those, 13,926 were self-employed.|
|Gender||Women make up 52% of all solicitors and partners in law firms. But there are many more men than women at partner level, with women making up just 35% of partners.||In 2022, around 38% of all practising barristers are women (ie, 6,680 women compared to 10,334 men).|
|Social mobility||Just over 60% of solicitors attended a state school, while 20% attended selective state schools.||In 2022, 33.5% of barristers attended an independent (private) school in the UK, compared to just 7% of the wider British population.|
|Ethnicity||People from ethnic minority backgrounds make up 19% of all solicitors, and 17% at partner level.||People from ethnic minority backgrounds make up 16.3% of all practising barristers (ie, 2,641).|
|Disability||Just 5% of solicitors said they had a disability.||As of December 2022, 12.5% of pupils said they had a disability.|
Under 1% of solicitors said their gender identify is different from their sex registered at birth.
|Around 0.2% of barristers reported a different gender identity to the sex they registered at birth (including non-respondents).|
|Employment||Mostly employed in private law firms or in-house, so receive a regular monthly salary.||Mostly self-employed, so receive irregular (but often substantial) fees.|
|Who they work with||Work mainly with individuals, companies and barristers.||Work mainly with solicitors and other barristers.|
|Where they work||Office-based, although have some rights of audience (ie, can appear in court like barristers). Engage more in ongoing advisory and one-to-one client work.||Chambers and court-based. Engage more in one-off advocacy (ie, court cases).|
|Career progression||Some solicitors aspire to become a partner (ie, part ownership of firm and entitlement to a percentage of its profits).||Some barristers aspire to become King’s Counsel (ie, a top barrister, normally instructed in serious and complex cases).|
|Salary expectations||While there’s no longer a minimum annual trainee salary, the average UK salary for a first-year trainee is around £27,000, while City firms can sometimes pay considerably more – anywhere from £35,000 upwards.||As of 1 January 2023, all pupil barristers must be paid a minimum of £20,703 per annum in London and £18,884 outside of London.|