There are more than 139,000 practising solicitors in England and Wales. The solicitors’ profession is one of three branches of the legal professions- the other two being the Bar (barristers) and legal executives. The solicitors’ professional body is the Law Society, and its regulator is the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA).
How do you qualify?
All would-be solicitors must pass the Legal Practice Course. Usually, the candidate has a degree in law before taking the LPC, but non-law graduates can do a one-year conversion course and then take the LPC. After passing the LPC, the trainee solicitor undergoes a two-year ‘training contract’ at a law firm in house legal department before they then qualify.
Some solicitors qualify via the legal executive route. They qualify as a chartered legal executive then take the LPC, and may (if they have sufficient legal work experience and can satisfy the SRA) be exempt from undertaking the training contract.
What does a solicitor do?
Most solicitors work in private practice in a law firm, though many work in house as a solicitor in a legal department within a large company, the Crown Prosecution Service, the Police, or in local or central government, and so on.
The job of a solicitor in a high street firm will be very varied, depending on the sector and practice area they work in. Solicitors advise clients on the legal issues and implications that affect their lives and their business. They tend to specialise in an area of law (traditionally, solicitors advised on a wider range of legal issues but that is no longer the case). For instance, a solicitor may specialise in property, commercial and company law, criminal defence, family and children law, sports law, media, personal injury, wills and probate, or one of many other areas of legal practice.
Day to day activities involve meeting with clients, negotiating on their behalf, representing them in court or at tribunals, and drafting legal documentation, routine paperwork and communications. This includes letters to and on behalf of clients and drawing up contracts, leases, and wills.
A solicitors’ limited expertise in a particular area may mean that ‘counsel’s opinion’ is required. This means that, for instance, where a difficult issue may arise, the opinion of a specialist barrister may be required before the client can be properly advised.
Solicitors’ rights of advocacy
Many solicitors are also advocates. This means representing their client in the courtroom or at tribunals or at other disciplinary hearings. The solicitor puts forward their client’s case, questions witnesses, and makes submissions to the court/tribunal. However, solicitors’ ‘rights of audience’ in court are restricted, and barristers are usually instructed to appear in most courts on behalf of a client.
A solicitor is permitted to advocate on their client’s behalf in the Magistrates’ Courts and the County Courts. Traditionally, solicitors had no rights of advocacy in the High Court, and limited rights of advocacy in the Crown Court. Since the Courts and Legal Services Act 1990 came into force, a solicitor in private practice can apply for a certificate of advocacy allowing them to advocate in the higher courts as a ‘Solicitor Advocate’.A Solicitor Advocate has rights of audience in the higher courts; and can also be appointed as Queen’s Counsel (QC), and to higher judicial posts.
The relationship between solicitors and barristers
Traditionally, there was a marked division between the solicitors and the Bar. This has gradually been eroded – partly with the introduction of Solicitor Advocates. Furthermore, many solicitors’ firms now employ their own barristers in house. In today’s legal market, solicitors and barristers work much more closely together than they did in previous decades.
Solicitors can, under the Courts and Legal Services Act 1990, now form partnerships with other professions, such as accountants, to supply what are known as ‘reserved’ legal activities to clients. The benefits of such an arrangement include that clients have access to a wider range of expertise and advice under one roof, meaning a more streamlined and cost-efficient service. These partnerships are regulated by the SRA.