updated on 29 August 2023
What lawyers do
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 pass; from the minimum wage you can earn in a job to the quality 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 aren’t the only types of lawyer. There are also chartered legal executives, paralegals, apprentices and more – find out more via the Apprenticeship hub and the ‘Paralegals’ section on LawCareers.Net, and in the companion to this booklet, The Law Apprenticeships Guide, which is available free at schools and online. For now, here’s an introduction to what solicitors and barristers do.
Solicitors provide advice and guide clients through legal issues. They’re the first point of contact for people and organisations seeking legal advice and representation. Most solicitors work together in law firms, while others work in central or local government, in companies’ legal departments (in-house) or in alternative business structures – a type of business that provides the same services as a law firm, but is controlled by non-lawyers (eg, the Co-operative Group).
Solicitors’ jobs differ depending on the 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:
Being a solicitor is a demanding but rewarding job. Many solicitors in law firms work their way up from trainee to associate to partner.
Barristers represent clients in court and advise on specialist legal issues. They receive cases through solicitors and are self-employed. When not in court, they work in chambers (offices shared by groups of barristers) where they prepare arguments and advice. Again, barristers work in many different areas of law.
Key elements of the job include:
Once qualified, a barrister is known formally as a ‘junior’. They remain a junior until they’re made a King’s Counsel (KC) – this is also known as ‘taking silk’. A KC is a senior barrister with extensive experience who’s seen as having outstanding ability. Most barristers never become KCs.
Chartered legal executives and paralegals are also lawyers who work in law firms, but the route to these jobs doesn’t always require a university degree. Find out more about paralegals, legal executives and apprenticeships later in this guide.
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 checking over 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 between practice areas – an immigration lawyer’s job will differ greatly from an intellectual property (IP) 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:
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 M&A, demergers, joint ventures and share issues.
Criminal lawyers advise and represent 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 solicitors can work on disputes that end up in employment tribunals or in the High Court, helping to draft employment contracts, advising on working hours, handling discrimination, staff restructuring and whistleblowing issues. Your client could be the employer or employee. As a barrister, you’ll appear on behalf of your client in either a tribunal or court, often in different parts of the country.
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 pre and post-nuptial/civil partnership agreements.
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.
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 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 range of charity work.
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.