Which side of the legal divide suits you best – being a solicitor or a barrister?

To decide what type of legal eagle to become, you need to judge your own personal skills

James Hall knew he wanted a career in law the moment he read To Kill A Mocking Bird. When he turned 15, his mother took him to watch murder trials at the Old Bailey, which whetted his appetite further still. "I became very interested in the way in which the seemingly rigid codes of practice of the legal system are applied to the rather more haphazard facts of real life," he explains.

The problem was that even after doing his law degree, he couldn't decide whether to become a barrister or solicitor. On the one hand, he was attracted to the advocacy; on the other, he wanted close contact with clients. Similarly, he wanted to argue in court in front of judges... but he also wanted to deal with a case from start to finish.

Now in the second year of his training contract as a solicitor with Charles Russell, Hall hasn't looked back – loving, as he does, the more structured environment of solicitor work and the area of commercial law. But it took him over a year to make his decision and even after he'd applied to do the Bar vocational course (BVC), he made a last-minute decision to change this to the legal practice course (LPC), the equivalent training course for solicitors.

With the work of solicitors and barristers increasingly overlapping (clients now have access to barristers without the need to go through solicitors, for example, while solicitors can now qualify as solicitor advocates, thereby acquiring rights of audience before the higher courts), it's a dilemma facing more and more people wanting a career in law.

Even the age-old analogy of solicitors being like GPs, while barristers are the consultants of the profession only remains partly true, says Tina Williams, senior partner at Fox Williams. "There is an increasing tendency among solicitors to specialise in specific areas of law, just as many barristers do." Indeed, both barristers and solicitors can major in anything from tax to family to criminal to planning to insolvency – and it may soon be the case that barristers can go into partnerships just as solicitors do.

Stuart Sime, BVC course director at the City Law School, adds that the difficulty of deciding between the two can be exacerbated by the fact that both sides of the profession require attention to detail, analytical skills and an ability to take a strategic view. "Good people skills are essential to both, as is confidence, practical common sense, business acumen and calmness when under pressure," he adds. Then there's the fact that both barristers and solicitors can work in private practice, in-house, the Armed Forces and in the public sector.

But, says Sime, key differences remain between the two careers, and focusing on these differences is one way to start the ball rolling in terms of decision-making. Solicitors, he explains, often have clients on a long-term basis, dealing with a variety of their legal problems. In addition, they tend to have day-to-day contact with clients. "Solicitors also deal with a wider range of legal problems than barristers, from litigation to conveyancing to private client work and more. And solicitors tend to spend far more of their time in their offices. Solicitors also have a variety of business models, from sole practitioners to large limited-liability partnerships, and in the larger organisations individual solicitors spend many years as employees."

Conversely, barristers are typically specialist advocates – majoring in a narrower area than most solicitors – as well as providing advisory and drafting services. "And even though there are limited rules on direct access, their clients tend to be referred to them by solicitors, which means that they deal with each client only for limited periods of time."

Barristers are usually sole traders, he adds, so even though they may be employed, most operate in chambers, each member running their own business. As such, they are not the team-workers that solicitors tend to be and they do not have a "boss". And although the work done at the Bar has widened, it is still largely court- and tribunal-based, so barristers tend to split their time between work in chambers and at court.

To help you decide which profession is for you, Sue Clarke, head of postgraduate careers at Nottingham Law School, advises evaluating your skills. "Being a barrister requires confidence, self-reliance and motivation. A student must have the ability to assimilate large amounts of paper at short notice and be confident on their feet at venues all over the country. It depends on the specialism, but it isn't unusual for a barrister to be in court until 4pm, go back to the chambers to pick up their brief for the next day, work on it that evening and then be on the road very early the next morning to a court many miles away."

Being a solicitor, on the other hand, requires the ability to multi-task and you'll need to excel in project work. Clarke adds that a barrister's work mainly comes in by reputation, so it may be several years before you earn a good standard of living, whereas a solicitor can enjoy the benefit of a steady income much earlier on.

It was predominantly this that made Amy Richardson become an employment law solicitor at Adams and Remers Solicitors in Lewes. "I learnt in my second year at university that you need to pay to put yourself through BVC, whereas there are funding options for LPC, and you earn little money during your pupillage. To top it all, you might earn little during the first few years as you build up your reputation as a barrister."

Linda Lee, vice-president of the Law Society, suggests doing a wide range of work experience to assist your decision. "One of the difficulties is that people are asked to decide relatively early in their career whether they want to apply to become a barrister or solicitor. So take up opportunities in a wide range of environments as soon as you can. And widen your scope within both career options too – so with solicitors, don't just think about private practice but local authorities and other places too."

Alex Learmonth, chairman of the Young Barristers' Committee at the Bar Council, agrees. "It's a good idea to do a placement with solicitors along with some mini-pupillages in chambers to see the differences first-hand."

Having failed to do this, Joseph Dollin only discovered after doing the BVC that he preferred the life of a solicitor. Having initially been attracted to the drama and excitement of life at the Bar by the likes of television's Kavanagh QC, he completed various mini-pupillages and did the BVC. It was only when he moved to London and applied for a job as a legal secretary in Ambrose Appelbe, a small solicitors' firm, to keep himself afloat that he discovered he loved it. "Eight years later, I am a salaried partner in the divorce and family department of the same firm and have never looked back," he says, pointing out that he works very reasonable hours, manages his own caseload, still gets to attend court and has the security of a fixed salary.

Others, including Giles Crown, head of the media, brands and technology team at law firm Lewis Silkin LLP, prove that – while often frustrating to have to retrain – it's never impossible to switch. "I left the Bar to spend a couple of years in-house at an advertising agency before joining Lewis Silkin and requalifying as a solicitor with higher rights of audience," he says. "It was a very tough decision for me leaving the Bar, but I wanted to find out more about the commercial world. I also felt my client management skills were not being fully utilised at the Bar."

Meanwhile, Samantha Hillas left her solicitor's job to become a family law barrister at Atlantic Chambers, Liverpool. "After a number of years as a solicitor, I became increasingly frustrated that the administrative side of the job prevented me spending much time in court," she says.

How and when you ultimately make your decision, don't be fooled by prevalent myths, cautions Paul Ridehalgh at Marsden Rawsthorn. "A common view is that barristers are more qualified and make better lawyers. But it's a misconception that solicitors cannot provide the same or a better quality of work."

Kate Novakovic, a solicitor at the Sheffield-based law firm Ashton Morton Slack, adds: "Another myth is that to be a barrister you must have been educated at private school and Oxbridge. This is not true."

'It is very gratifying to achieve a positive result'

Nick Pritchett is an employment solicitor at Burges Salmon, based in Bristol.

"I wanted to use my English skills and I knew that I wanted to work in the professional services. Law seemed like something I could really get my teeth into and so I decided to do a law degree at Durham University.

I work at Burges Salmon, a nationally ranked firm of solicitors based in Bristol. I did my first work experience placement here and valued the relationship that lawyers have with their clients. The nature of being a solicitor, as opposed to a barrister, is that you see the project from start to completion and it is very gratifying to solve problems and achieve a positive result.

After my degree, I took a year out to work for a sports charity in Fiji and then went on to study my LPC. When I joined Burges Salmon, I had the opportunity to undertake six-seat training, rather than the standard four, so I had a great overview of the firm and felt well placed to choose 'employment' as the practice I wanted to work in.

Being a solicitor often involves juggling scheduled work and unexpected jobs, which keeps me on my toes. My work involves a mix of independent research, client contact and drafting documents, but I also frequently work with other team members, supporting them in a wide range of activities from large projects to employment tribunal appearances.

Building client relationships and achieving results are the highlights of my job. It helps to be a 'people person', but working for a major firm means that there is a place for all kinds of personalities.

When you see a very talented barrister take to the floor, I wonder if I could have delivered such a powerful performance, but at Burges Salmon I have such a variety of different projects to work on. I think I would miss that experience."

'I meet some fascinating people with interesting problems'

Laura Briggs is a barrister at 18 St John Street Chambers in Manchester.

"I decided I wanted to become a lawyer when I was about 10 years old. I'd been influenced by portrayals of lawyers on TV, but as I got older I developed a real interest in the practice of the law.

After my state-school education, I did a law degree at Manchester University and it was in my first year there that I decided to become a barrister. I was attracted by being an advocate, having to think on my feet and being self-employed. I undertook a number of mini-pupillages [work experience in a barristers' chambers], which reinforced my decision. After completing my Bar vocational course [which teaches the practical skills ], I went straight into pupillage.

Now I'm a family practitioner, dealing with cases involving divorce and children. On a typical day, I'll go into chambers in the morning, then go to court for a hearing. At court, I'll meet with my client and then negotiate on their behalf. Sometimes I'll be dealing with a divorce case and trying to negotiate a money settlement, or I'll be representing someone in a case regarding children, negotiating on issues of contact or preparing for a trial in a care case. After negotiations, the case is called on to court where a judge will either approve an agreement reached between the parties or will have to make a decision based on the arguments and evidence put forward by the advocates. Cases can last a few hours or days. After court, I'll go back to chambers to prepare for other cases.

I enjoy the fact each day is different and I meet some fascinating people with interesting problems. Being self-employed is a plus, and I find myself challenged every day. With this comes heavy responsibility, and in a serious trial the pressure can be great. The hours can be long, but the rewards outweigh the stresses."

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