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Beginner's Guide

What lawyers do

updated on 24 August 2020

Lawyers perform an important role, as law covers 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 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 “Apprenticeships and paralegals” and in the companion to this booklet, The Law Apprenticeships Guide 2021, which is available free at schools and online at www.lawcareers.net. For now, here is an introduction to what solicitors and barristers do.

Solicitors

Solicitors provide advice and guide clients through legal issues. They are the first point of contact for people and organisations (eg, companies and charities) seeking legal advice and representation. Most solicitors are employed by law firms, while others work in central or local government, in companies’ legal departments or in alternative business structures (ABS) – a type of business which provides the same services as a law firm, but is controlled by non-lawyers (eg, the Co-operative Group).

Solicitors’ jobs are very different depending on what area of law they work in (eg, crime or family) and whether their work is advisory (eg, helping one company buy another) or involves legal disputes (eg, one company suing another). 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 solicitors in law firms work their way up from trainee to associate to partner. (NB chartered legal executives often have very similar jobs to solicitors.)


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 represent clients in court and advise on specialist legal issues. They receive their cases through solicitors and are self-employed. When not in court, they work in chambers (offices shared by groups of barristers) where they prepare their arguments and advice. Again, barristers work in many different areas of law. Key elements of the job include:

  • advising clients on the law and the strength of their case;
  • writing advice letters and legal opinions for clients;
  • representing clients in court, including presenting the case and cross-examining witnesses; and
  • negotiating settlements (when a legal dispute is resolved privately outside of court).

Once they qualify, 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 seen as having outstanding ability. Most barristers never become QCs.

Areas of law

There are hundreds of different types of law. At the simplest level, you can divide lawyers between those doing commercial work (ie, work for companies) and those involved with individual people. You could be a banking lawyer scrutinising a major loan by a bank to a corporation, or a personal injury lawyer advising someone who was injured at work. Day-to-day working life varies hugely from practice area to practice area – an immigration lawyer’s job will differ from an intellectual property solicitor’s. 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 intellectual ideas (eg, new inventions, brands and music) from exploitation, usually through copyright, trademarks and patents. The work of IP lawyers includes commercial exploitation cases, infringement disputes, and agreements covering IP rights, either exclusively or as part of larger commercial deals.

Private client

Private client lawyers advise on all aspects of an individual client’s financial affairs, 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.