The job of a Solicitor
There are around 80,000 practising solicitors in England and Wales. Alongside barrister, it is one of the two legal professions. The Law Society is their professional body and to become a solicitor it is a requirement to take their Legal Practice Course.
Usually the candidate has a degree in law before taking the LPC but graduates in other subjects can do a yearlong conversion course and then take the LPC. After passing the Law Society’s qualification, the trainee solicitor undergoes a two-year ‘training contract’ at a firm, which is a kind of apprenticeship.
The Solicitors Regulation Authority regulates training and qualifications and the Legal Complaints Service acts independently to the Law Society.
The majority of those who qualify as a solicitor will go on to work in private practice in a solicitors’ company. They may work as a sole practitioner or in a partnership. In England and Wales there are over 8,700 solicitors’ firms, from small high street firms to large city firms with hundreds of partners.
The job of a solicitor in a high street firm will be varied. They will advise clients on many matters and as such run a more general law practice. The most popular topics are housing, business, family and consumer rights. Day to day activities involve meeting with clients, negotiating on their behalf and writing up and processing all the necessary paperwork. This includes letters on behalf of clients and drawing up contracts, leases and wills. Another aspect of their job is conveyancing i.e. the legal side of transferring houses, buildings and land.
In terms of standing up in court, a solicitor may act for his client in this way, which is known as advocacy. A solicitor may specialise in putting forward the case for their client and questioning witnesses.
Although it is common for high street firms to cover various aspects of the law, it is not unusual for either the firm or a solicitor to specialise in one area even in high street firms. A firm might concentrate on criminal law, family law or civil actions for instance.
A solicitor in a large city firm is more likely to specialise, as various aspects of law will have their own department and team. In addition, these firms tend to focus on commercial and business law.
Rights of Advocacy
A solicitor is permitted to act as an advocate in the Magistrates’ Courts and the County Courts and this has always been the case. However until 1986 they had no rights of advocacy in the High Court and until the 1990s they were limited in their rights in the Crown Court. Their rights were presenting cases on committal for sentence or appeal from Magistrates’ Court.
In 1986, a Practice Direction issued by the High Court following Abse v Smith allowed a solicitor to make a statement in cases in which the terms had been agreed.
Under the Courts and Legal Services Act 1990, a solicitor in private practice now had the right to apply for a certificate of advocacy that allowed appearance in the higher courts. The solicitor must have experience of advocacy (from the Magistrates’ and County Courts), take a short training course and pass examinations on the rules of evidence in order to gain this certificate.
A solicitor who gains this Certificate of advocacy is granted certain eligibilities. They can be appointed as Queen’s Counsel and can be appointed to higher judicial posts.
The Access to Justice Act 1999 meant that solicitors have full rights of audience automatically after fulfilling training requirements.
More recently, the division between barristers and solicitors has broken down further. Some firms of solicitors now employ their own barristers and solicitor advocates may spend a large proportion of their time in court. The Legal Services Act 2007 outlined a more unified regulatory system and new structures for cross-profession.
According to the Courts and Legal Services Act 1990 (Section 66), solicitors are allowed to form partnerships with other professions such as accountants. The benefit of such an arrangement would be that the client could have access to a wide range of expertise and advice under one roof.
However, the professional bodies that govern solicitors and barristers, namely the Law Society and the Bar Council, prohibit such multi-discipline partnerships and Section 66 of the Act adheres to these rules.
The Courts and Legal Services Act 1990 also gave the right of conveyancing (the legal side to buying and selling property and land) to banks and building societies. This shattered the monopoly hold that solicitors had maintained on conveyancing until the mid 1980s and thus solicitors had to drop their fees to remain competitive yet still lost a large proportion of their work.