What is a solicitor?
A solicitor practices in one of three main branches of the legal profession in the UK. These are solicitors, barristers and legal executives. Solicitors and legal executives have similar roles in the legal profession, though solicitors typically have greater rights in some respects. They carry out general legal work, usually in one or two areas of speciality, whilst barristers traditionally specialise in advocacy work.
Solicitors are usually the first point of contact with the law when you have a legal problem. They will carry out the ground work of your case or transaction, and advocate on your behalf in court. However, if advocacy is required in the higher courts, for instance, the Crown Court, High Court or an appeal court, a barrister is often required because solicitors’ audience rights are limited. That said, solicitor-advocates are more highly qualified and are able to appear in the higher courts.
Solicitors traditionally work in partnership with other lawyers, or in an organisation that is incorporated. The partners/directors are typically the most experienced lawyers. Within the firm, there will often be associate and assistant solicitors and legal executives, and trainee solicitors. Recent changes mean that it is possible for solicitors and barristers to work together in multi-disciplinary practices.
Law firms range from sole practitioners (where there may be a single solicitor running his or her own practice), to large multi-national law firms employing thousands of lawyers.
Traditionally, solicitors would practice across a range of legal areas – for example, dealing with a property transaction, attending a police station and drafting a business agreement in one day. Today, very few solicitors are ‘general practitioners’ because it is simply no longer feasible. The law has developed to such an extent that is very difficult to keep up with developments in more than two or three areas of legal practice.
This means solicitors now generally specialise in one, two or three areas at most. This can be a broad area of specialisation such as general company and commercial matters, or civil litigation. In larger firms, the solicitors are usually even more specialist in their work. For instance, a construction lawyer may only practice in non-contentious construction, and a colleague may only deal with construction disputes. In circumstances where a client needs advice on a different aspect of the law, this would usually be dealt with by a colleague in the firm (or another firm may be recommended if necessary).
If you are thinking of becoming a solicitor, you do not need to decide which area of the law you which to specialise in until you are completing your training contract, but it is always useful to think about the areas of law you are interested in, and look at studying modules in these areas.
How do I become a solicitor?
The most common first step to becoming a solicitor is studying towards a university degree. This does not have to be a law degree. However, if you take a non-law degree you will need to do additional studying.
With a law degree
If you study towards a law degree, you will typically spend three years at university before your degree is obtained. You will then need to complete the Legal Practice Course, offered by a number of universities and institutions in England and Wales. The course lasts for one year full-time, or two years part-time, and you will study compulsory modules such as criminal law, property law and practice and litigation. You will also have the opportunity to choose particular subjects of interest to you.
Without a law degree
Following a non-law degree, you then need to do the law conversion course called the Graduate Diploma in Law. This course lasts one year, and you will study compulsory core legal subjects, such as land law, contract and tort. After the GDL, you will then need to complete the Legal Practice Course (see above).
The training contract
Once you have completed the Legal Practice Course, you must complete a two-year training contract working in a law firm (or with an in-house legal team). Whilst you are training you will have a ‘principal’. This will be an experienced solicitor within the firm who will be the person responsible for your training and supervision.
Throughout the training contract, you will work as a trainee solicitor, during which time you will also complete further courses and modules covering, for instance, solicitors’ rules and accounts. This is the Professional Skills Course.
Your practical training will depend on where you train. In larger firms, it is common to have ‘seats’, meaning that you spend around a period of months in different legal departments. Wherever you do train, you will be required to train in both contentious and non-contentious areas of law, in at least three seats.
Once the training contract has been successfully completed (along with the Professional Skills Course), you will be eligible to be admitted as a solicitor.
Without a degree
It is also possible qualify as a solicitor without a degree, by training as a legal executive with the Institute of Legal Executives. Typically, you would work in legal practice and study at the same time, receiving practical legal training, and attending classes or studying via distance learning.
A legal executive carries out much the same work as a solicitor. Once qualified, you may then need to undertake further training (depending on your existing experience) and, once the Solicitors Regulation Authority is satisfied, you can be admitted as a solicitor.