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Beginner's Guide

What lawyers do

updated on 04 September 2019

Lawyers perform a valuable role, as law is involved in every aspect of society - from the age you can take your driving test to the speed you can drive when you qualify; from the minimum wage you can expect to earn in a job to the cleanness of the water you drink.

The first thing to know is that traditionally, the legal profession is divided into two main branches – solicitors and barristers. However, these are not the only types of lawyer and there are chartered legal executives, paralegals, apprentices and more – find out more in the Paralegals section and The Law Apprenticeships Guide. For now, here is a broad introduction to what solicitors and barristers do.

Solicitors

Solicitors provide advice and assistance on legal issues. 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 law firms owned by solicitors, while others work in central or local government, in companies’ legal departments or in an alternative business structure (ABS) – a type of business which provides the same services as a law firm, but is funded and controlled by non-lawyers (eg, the Co-operative Group).

Solicitors’ jobs can be very different depending on what area of law you work in (eg, crime or family) and whether your work is advisory (eg, helping one company acquire another) or involves legal disputes. All solicitors’ jobs involve some or all of the following:

  • meeting clients, finding out their needs and establishing how to help;
  • researching relevant areas of law and advising clients of their options;
  • drafting letters, contracts and other legal documents; and
  • acting on behalf of clients in negotiations and 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 trainee to associate to partner. (NB The job of a chartered legal executive is also very similar to that of a solicitor.)


Chartered legal executives and paralegals are also legal professionals who work in law firms, but the route to these jobs does not require a university degree.


Barristers

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 many different areas of law, the key elements of the job are 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’. They remain a junior until they are made a Queen’s Counsel (QC) – this is also known as ‘taking silk’. A QC is a senior barrister with extensive experience who is regarded as having outstanding ability. Most barristers never become QCs.

Areas of law

There are hundreds of different types of law. At the broadest level, you can divide lawyers between those doing commercial work (ie, work for companies) and those involved with individual people. 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 lawyer advising someone who was injured at work. Different practice areas are like different jobs: a typical day for a human rights solicitor will feel very different to that of a corporate one. See the practice area snapshot below 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 offences 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.

Public law

Public law concerns relationships between people and government. This might mean challenging the level of care provided to a disabled person by a local authority, or on a larger scale, advising the government on national infrastructure development, such as a new energy or transport project.