Lawyers divide into two main types – solicitors and barristers.
Traditionally, solicitors gave advice to the public and, in criminal trials or litigation, prepared their cases for them while the main role of barristers was to represent them in court.
Increasingly, however, the distinction between barristers and solicitors has begun to blur as some solicitors gain the right to represent their clients in the higher courts and a growing number of barristers give legal advice in addition to their work in court.
However, your first port of call will almost always be a solicitors’ firm. Although some barristers do accept direct instructions from clients (mostly commercial ones, especially with regard to tax and insolvency), the vast majority do not and can only be instructed through a solicitor.
However, those who do tend to be cheaper than instructing a solicitor although you have to know how to instruct barristers and not expect the administrative back-up supplied by a law firm.
Solicitor: Solicitors are fully-qualified lawyers who have undertaken post-graduate education and a two-year on-the-job training period.
Although most specialise in a particular area of law, they can give advice to the public on most areas of law.
All solicitors can also represent their clients at tribunals, in the magistrates and county courts, and a small but growing number are also further qualified to represent clients in the ‘higher courts’, which were, until relatively recently, the preserve of barristers.
Most solicitors that advise the public operate from independent law firms, where more senior solicitors are often partners in the practice.
Barrister: Barristers have a separate system of qualification and apprenticeship from solicitors and their main role is to represent clients in court. Qualified barristers have the rights to represent clients in the ‘higher courts’ such as the Crown Court, High Court, Court of Appeal and House of Lords.
There are some other types of lawyer that you may come across.
Legal executives, who do many of the same jobs as solicitors, have passed similar examinations to solicitors and usually specialise in one particular area of law.
Paralegals are essentially specialised administrative staff who will normally have a law degree or other form of legal qualification (although this is not a legal requirement) but have not qualified as either solicitors or legal executives. They can give legal advice under the supervision of a qualified solicitor.
Another type of ‘lawyer’ you may encounter are ‘licensed conveyancers’. They will have passed exams to qualify and specialise solely in property transactions.