England and Wales have a split legal profession, with a traditional distinction between solicitors and barristers. This contrasts with many other countries, including many in the common law world, which have only one type of lawyer. England and Wales are of course not the only place to have a split profession.
Some jurisdictions have split professions based on the English model, such as Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. And in other countries split professions evolved separately. For example, in South Africa, whose law is a mix of English and Roman-Dutch influences, there is a split profession but the branches are called attorneys and advocates. And some civil law systems have a split between advocates and notaries.
However, many jurisdictions whose law is derived from English law have abandoned the split profession. For instance, in the islands of the Eastern Caribbean, where I practise, and many countries in the Commonwealth, there is no longer any division between solicitors and barristers. All lawyers are admitted as attorneys and perform the functions of both solicitors and barristers.
So, what’s the difference between a solicitor and a barrister? Traditionally, in England, solicitors had a monopoly on the “conduct of litigation”. That meant taking steps like issuing proceedings in court on behalf of their client, filing documents with the court and paying court fees.
Barristers were not allowed to conduct litigation, nor were they allowed to handle client money. Conversely, barristers had a monopoly on the right of audience in the higher courts – that is, the right to argue cases in court. Although solicitors were allowed to argue before the Magistrates’ Court and the County Court, only barristers were allowed to argue before the Crown Court, the Court of Appeal, the High Court or the House of Lords.
Another tradition was that clients did not instruct barristers directly. Clients instructed solicitors, who in turn instructed barristers to argue on their behalf. The relationship of client with barrister was also different from the relationship of client with solicitor. Originally, a barrister could not be sued for professional negligence in representing their client, whereas a solicitor could. And a barrister could not sue the client for unpaid fees, whereas a solicitor could.
In the past few decades, many of these things have changed. Solicitors can now qualify as solicitor-advocates, which gives them a right of audience in the higher courts. Many barristers are now qualified to accept instructions directly from clients through the Bar Public Access Scheme and a small number are now qualified to conduct litigation. And barristers can now be sued for negligence and can sue solicitors for their fees.
However, it remains the case that the working life of a typical barrister and a typical solicitor are quite different. Most barristers are self-employed and work in chambers (a posh word for a collection of rooms in an office) which are not firms but are associations of individual self-employed barristers.
By contrast, most solicitors work in firms, either as employees or as partners with other solicitors. Most barristers still get the bulk of their work through instructions from solicitors, not clients directly. And most barristers still carry out a lot more courtroom advocacy than most solicitors do. But this is a generalisation and there are exceptions. Even solicitors who aren’t solicitor-advocates can carry out advocacy in the lower courts and the tribunals, and some solicitors spend a lot of their working lives carrying out advocacy.
In addition to conducting litigation, many solicitors spend a lot of time on non-litigious work. This includes tasks such as drawing up and advising on contracts and carrying out conveyancing. But again, this is a generalisation and there are also some barristers who spend a lot of time on non-litigious work. And to make it even more complicated, there are also employed barristers, some of whom work in-house for companies and government departments, while others work in law firms alongside solicitors.
So, it isn’t easy to summarise the difference between solicitors and barristers for a lay audience. Sometimes people use the shorthand of saying that solicitors are “generalists” and barristers are “specialists”. But this is not really accurate: some solicitors have highly specialised practices and some barristers have generalist ones. And any statement we might make about the differences between the two professions is inevitably subject to exceptions. In short, the difference between solicitors and barristers is often confusing for the general public.
In this series, we will look at the history of the split profession, why it exists, its advantages and disadvantages and whether we still need it in the modern world.
To understand why we have a split legal profession today, we need briefly to dive into the history of the English legal system. Today we are familiar with the two traditional branches of the profession, solicitors and barristers, but at one time there were five: attorneys, solicitors, barristers, proctors and advocates. From its inception in the 13th century, the legal profession in the common law courts of England was divided into two branches. The first branch was the pleaders, the forerunner of modern barristers. The leaders of this profession were called the serjeants, which came from the Latin servientes regis ad legem, or “servants of the King at law”.
Junior members of the profession were originally called “apprentices at law”. They began to congregate in “inns”, which developed into the Inns of Court, the professional societies for barristers which still exist today. Their role was to speak for their client in court and argue their client’s case. By the 17th century, the term “barrister” came into general use in place of the older “apprentice at law”.
The second branch was the attorneys. “Attorney” originally means “agent”, which is why we still use the term today in a different context to refer to non-lawyers, when a person is given a “power of attorney” to handle another person’s affairs. Attorneys acted as agents for their client in the conduct of litigation, in contrast to barristers, who only spoke for the client in court.
Until the middle of the 16th century, practising attorneys were allowed to join the Inns of Court and the division between apprentices at law and attorneys was not rigid. However, the division became increasingly rigid in the 16th century, when the Inns of Court began to exclude practising attorneys and relegate them to a different set of Inns, the Inns of Chancery. The Inns of Chancery have since faded into history but you can see their legacy in some place names in the City of London, such as Barnard’s Inn and Furnival’s Inn.
By the end of the 18th century, the policy of excluding practising attorneys from call to the Bar was well established. So, by that stage there was a clear division between the two professions. They were also regulated differently. Attorneys were officers of the court and were regulated strictly by the court, often being harshly punished for minor breaches of the rules. By contrast, barristers were principally regulated by their own professional bodies, the Inns of Court, as well as by restrictive rules of professional etiquette.
Another legal profession which grew up alongside the attorneys and barristers was the solicitors. By way of background, from the late Middle Ages until the 19th century, there was a separation between the courts of common law and the courts of equity.
The Court of King’s Bench and the Court of Common Pleas administered common law, which tended to be rigid and rule-bound. The Court of Chancery, presided over by the Lord Chancellor, administered equity which tended to be more flexible and less rigid. Solicitors did the same kind of work in the Court of Chancery that attorneys did in the courts of common law. We can see the legacy of this divide in the structure of the High Court today, which still has a King’s Bench Division and a Chancery Division.
To make it even more confusing, there were also two more legal professions: proctors and advocates. These lawyers practised in the ecclesiastical and admiralty courts. The ecclesiastical courts had jurisdiction over probate and divorce as well as church matters, while the admiralty courts had jurisdiction over shipping matters.
Those courts administered civil law, which was derived from Roman law, rather than English common law. Whereas common law was taught at the Inns of Court, Roman law was taught at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. The advocates had their own professional society, called Doctors’ Commons, which was immortalised in Charles Dickens’ novel David Copperfield.
During the 19th century, there was a process of consolidation of the courts and legal professions. In 1857, Parliament created the Court of Probate and Court for Divorce and Matrimonial Causes, where barristers could practise, meaning the advocates of Doctors’ Commons lost their monopoly over probate and divorce. Most proctors thereafter joined the ranks of the solicitors, and Doctors’ Commons died out in the late 19th century.
Another big change came with the Judicature Act 1873, which merged the superior courts of common law and equity into a single High Court as we know it today, which administers both common law and equity. That Act also merged the professions of attorney and solicitor into one and provided that both should be known as solicitors. That remains the case today. ■
Next week: How the Bar developed
Professor Leslie Thomas KC is a lecturer at Gresham College in central London