Are Barristers The Doctors Of The Legal Profession, And Solicitors The Nurses?

Last week there was outrage on The Student Room when a poster likened barristers to doctors and solicitors to nurses.

Out of the ensuing maelstrom emerged two points of broad agreement:

Barristers are cleverer than solicitors (“a barrister could do what a solicitor does, but not necessarily the other way round”).

But it’s easier to make megabucks as a solicitor (“Your chances of making it to the top of the pile and earning a ****load of money are much higher as a solicitor than as a barrister in my opinion.”).

Of course, it’s not that simple, with different types of barrister and solicitor – not to mention legal executive – outranking each other

In search of some definitive truth on the matter? Here’s Legal Cheek‘s power list (focusing on how lawyers rank at the point of entry to the profession):

1. Barrister at a top 20 chambers. The king of the jungle.

2. Solicitor at a magic circle firm. What lacks in cool makes up for in £££.

3. Solicitor at an elite human rights firm like Bindmans or Hickman and Rose. What lacks in £££ makes up for in cool.

4. Common law barrister. OK, employment/family disputes are a bit grubby, but still a barrister.

5. Corporate solicitor at biggish firm. Not exactly living the dream, but wonderful holidays.

6. Criminal barrister. Still sounds good at dinner parties. Shame about the Tesco value wine, though.

7. CILEX lawyer at biggish firm. On the up. Says “I think you’ll find that legal executives are lawyers” 50% less than this time last year.

8. High Street Solicitor. Hunted. Has terrible dreams featuring the Co-op and corpses.

9. Paralegal. Servant.

10. Unpaid intern “Voluntary Paralegal”. Slave.

19 Responses to “Are Barristers The Doctors Of The Legal Profession, And Solicitors The Nurses?”

  1. Adam Wagner

    Alex – thanks for this.

    This will be an eternal question – well, perhaps not as you have posed it in the title, but more broadly whether being a barrister is ‘better’ than being a solicitor. And perhaps also not eternal, if the professions ever merge as is vaguely threatened by the recent reforms.

    Anyway, I do want to make one comment, aside from the obvious one which is that there are lots of different kinds of solicitors and barristers and whether you want to be one or the other is a matter of personal preference and really depends on the kinds of things you enjoy doing.

    When I was a Bar student and doing my conversion course, I experienced a significant amount of what I would describe as ‘proto-professional snobbery’, i.e. Bar students who didn’t yet have pupillages and yet were, for vague but surprisingly firm reasons, wholly opposed to being solicitors.

    I think this is a real problem at the bar student level, but the reality of the job (that is, being a *lawyer*) is that there is a lot of cross-over between what solicitors and barristers do. In fact, many of the things that I enjoy doing as a barrister (e.g. fighting for my clients), I could happily do as a solicitor.

    This snobbery is a real problem, not just because if it carries through to the profession (or, more likely, it filters down from the profession), then it makes barristers look like the stereotypical pompous idiots. But the bigger problem is that it shields Bar students from thinking properly about their options for the future. However wonderfully enticing the Bar may be, there are plenty more training contracts than pupillages – so closing yourself off from the vast majority of jobs on shaky justification is a bit silly.

    My strong advice would be to ignore everything you read about the two sides of the profession (including, with respect to the above, league tables!) and get as much work experience as you can in both, and make sure that you do it in firms and chambers which do different work to each other. The work of a commercial solicitor is significantly different (almost unrecognisably so) from that of a legal aid housing solicitor – make sure you see it all. Then decide whether you want to be a solicitor, barrister, doctor, nurse or even… a paralegal.

    (signed, a former paralegal)

    Reply
  2. Chris

    Speaking as a civil litigation solicitor doing legal aid housing as well. I’d say it is actually more like;

    Solicitor = GP
    Barrister= consultant (specialist)

    Reply
  3. Shibley (@legalaware)

    The article is brilliant. All of the comments are good fun too, and Adam’s is particularly interesting.

    It’d be interested to conduct a survey of how the public perceives the legal profession, something which the Bar Standards Board and the Solicitors Regulation Authority are keen about. It might be that, to Mr Average Punter, ‘they all look the same’. This is what #MBA types refer to as ‘brand identity’, ‘brand equity’, ‘brand value’ and ‘brand awareness’.

    How lawyers view one another may be misaligned with how the public views lawyers. This brings up the ‘The Doctor will see you know’ phenomenon, in that a member of a public might not know (or care) as to whether he is being seen by a junior Foundation Doctor, Specialist Registrar, Staff Grade, Consultant, Professor and/or Head of Department. When a member of the general public sees a lawyer, do they care so much about whether a newly-qualified sees them, or a senior Partner in a Magic Circle firm sees them (apart from the concomitant effect on their bank balance)?

    One last thing, Alex – I note you didn’t include ‘Alternative Business Structure Lawyer’ as a separate category? Such an ABS professional might be subsumed under a different category?

    Hope all is well, Shibs

    Reply
  4. CS

    “Barristers are cleverer than solicitors (“a barrister could do what a solicitor does, but not necessarily the other way round”).”

    It would be fairer to say that both professions could perform the work of the other… just not with the same competence… most solicitors I know easily and often perform the role of counsel and there are many advocates bricking it at the thought of conducting their own litigation.

    The whole process of advocacy is just learning what language the Judge (i,e, another barrister) likes to hear. It’s nothing special, get over yourselves.

    Reply
  5. Mark

    I remember asking a barrister at a drinks party what he specialised in. “Chancery”, he said. “So what’s that?” I asked, and received a patient, haughty, derisive sigh. “Wills, trusts, banking, tax, capital, money, finance generally” he said. “I’m a solicitor,” I said, and the weary eyelids fluttered further. “I specialise in the acquisition of UK companies using tax-efficient planning,” I said. “I wouldn’t know diddly-squat about wills and trusts, though. I expect it’s your planet-sized brain that enables you to be expert in so very many areas without having to mug it up the night before. Still, I’m a go-to legal expert in my field, my charge-out rate is at least two or three times yours, and I can retire at 50 if I want to.” And I did, and very nice it is too. Still, I’m sure Rumpole enjoyed putting his wig and gown on every day even though the gout was plaguing him.

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  6. Dave

    I find the original comparison utterly insulting towards nurses. To compare nurses to solicitors does nurses a severe disservice.

    And besides, nursing is an honourable profession and potentially £100k earning career path with a gold plated pension.

    Reply
  7. CS

    I’m sure, like the dinosaurs back in the Cretaceous, we’ll hear a lot more tramping and snorting before the old boys wig’n’gown club gives up the ghost…. but vanish it will. The writing is clearly on the wall.

    Doctors however, are here to stay.

    Reply
  8. Uncle Solicitor

    Hello All. Uncle Solicitor here.

    The person who proposed this analogy is sorely lacking in any of the qualities required for a successful career in either of the two professions. Such an analogy would be laughable even on an internet forum.

    The cold hard reality is – and has been for many years now – that the solicitor profession attracts the brightest candidates, the path to becoming a solicitor in most jurisdictions around the world is more difficult than that of becoming a barrister (longer at least) and in most respects, solicitors now have rights of audience corresponding with that of barristers.

    On the other hand, barristers still hang onto the idea of wearing a wig and gown, something that solicitors gave up sometime around the early 18th Century.

    Most solicitors do not need a wig nor a gown to cover their balding pates or scalp creases caused by problems barristers have these days such as how to pay the next month’s rent at chambers.

    Most solicitors do not feel the need to push their clients toward trials as a means of resolving disputes when a letter or telephone call would suffice.

    Most solicitors understand, unlike barristers, that advocacy begins not in the courtroom but with their clients.

    In many civilized jurisdictions around the world, especially in some states of Australia and the United States, solicitors are barristers but still feel it unnecessary to wear a wig to transact the business of their profession. In addition to being capable advisers, researchers, transactional and litigation lawyers, they are also capable advocates, and and are given recognition as counsel and attorney. The reality is that advocacy is a skill but by no means the most demanding. Advising a client on a 500 page merger document involving 5 different areas of law – now that’s a difficult skill. Gone are the days when counsel gave the ‘best’ advice when super specialization of solicitors and the human pyramids of lawyers they command means their advice is better. Still, one cannot measure this as better or best. What it really boils down to is this:

    Some people still need a prop to do their work, it seems. That is unfortunate. I would have thought that an actor needed props, but not a practicing lawyer. As an example, Roberts CJ of the SCOTUS never needed a prop such as a wig or robe as a practitioner to perform as an attorney or counsel.

    Barristers need to understand that in the modern Google Age in which we all live – even an age I am struggling to understand – the ordinary man on the street will not have thie prop guff. The fellow with the eye shadow who plays Captain Jack Sparrow in those pirate movies needs wigs, fancy coats and other props, not lawyers in the real world.

    More whiskey Miss Murphy! This topic makes me very thirsty!

    Reply
    • Concerned

      Whilst CJ Roberts of SCOTUS never needed a prop his predecessor did. CJ Rehnquist introduced 4 Gold Stripes to try and mimick our own Lord Chancellor’s finery. Incredibly theatrical for the Americans.

      Ask a man on the street to describe a lawyer and they often talk about the bloke in the wig and gown who gets up in Court. I don’t think Barristers are quite dead yet.

      Reply
      • Uncle Solicitor

        My dear fellow, did you not read the note I left earlier?

        It said “Some people still need a prop to do their work, it seems. That is unfortunate. I would have thought that an actor needed props, but not a practicing lawyer. As an example, Roberts CJ of the SCOTUS never needed a prop such as a wig or robe as a practitioner to perform as an attorney or counsel.”

        As a practitioner, Roberts CJ, nor any of his peers needed such a prop. Solicitors Barristers advising clients on complex 500 page contracts and the 500 pieces of legislation that apply to them do not. Why then do you?

        Rehnquist CJ ? Why are you living in the past? Your emphasis upon coxcombery is obvious, in the way that the cock that climbs upon the dunghill to crow is. It seems that you have missed the entire point of my note, which was that a lawyer that needs a prop to do his job ought not be a lawyer, but rather a player on the stage or silver screen. Or a clown. Clowsns like props, legal practitioners in the real world do not, and no, in the collective mind of the English speaking world (US, Can, Aus, UK), people who wear wigs in courts are not regarded as the characteristic lawyer, the lawyer sitting in his or her office taking instructions for a will, property conveyance or divorce proceeding is. The average person knows that court is the last place they want to be – expensive, uncertain, and a place of last resort where ‘professionals’ who believe that they need Hanoverian wigs to stand up and make a submission write posts remarkably like yours above. Most people want to live their lives and resolve differences without that ultimate step, believe it or not…

        Miss Murphy, who would make such a comment as Mr Concerned? A person whose mind is weighed down with thoughts of coxcombery and popinjayery you say? Yes, I quite agree! You say a soldier of substance needs not wear the coxcombery and finery of the late Gaddafi to perform with heroism and aptitude on the battlefield? Yes, I also agree! Take a look at Marc Mitscher on the deck of the Hornet – see what he wears? Now take a look at Yamamoto on the deck of the Nagato. See the difference?

        ‘Let the clowns be clowns’ somebody famous once muttered. I tend to agree with that.

        Reply
  9. Uncle Solicitor

    Corrigendum

    Too much whiskey, apologies for the typo errors. Uncle S isn’t the best personal computer typer in the world of law. The real error made in my note however should be corrected thus:

    “Most solicitors do not need a wig nor a gown to cover their balding pates or scalp creases caused by problems barristers have these days such as how to pay the [last twelve] month’s rent at chambers.”

    Oh …. Sing Along Now Little Ones!
    I wish I could wear a wig
    And do a Celtic Jig
    Because the people are struck by theatre
    Much like they are by a realtor
    Smoke and shadows do not make
    Things of substance, not-opaque
    Cover your hair! Wear your wig!
    The people do not care a fig
    Give me advocacy, give what comes may
    Do not expect it from a perruque!

    Reply
  10. pompous rumpus qc

    Amusing. And not as inaccurate as these things can be. However a word of caution about the “Top 20″ and “Top 30″ tables of chambers. These are based on turnover of the set. This obviously weighs the tables in favour of (i) sets doing some, or largely, commercial work; (ii) large sets. It may be that the large commercial sets, or the commercial sets, or the large sets, are the only ones you consider to outrank the rest of your league table, but this does ignore very good places, viewed as excellent within both branches of the profession, which either do not do commercial work or are not very big. One example of this: Matrix is probably as good or better (definitely in the top rank of human rights and public law, difficult to get into, highly academic, prestigous within the profession and to the outside world, attracting enormously good work, etc) than 4 Pump Court (still good, but not in the top rank of commercial sets) in the view of people generally , but does less high value work and so is not in the Top 20. Indeed, if it were a few barristers smaller, it might fall out of the Top 30.

    Reply
  11. Richard

    Times have indeed changed.

    Way back in the 60s when I qualified as a solicitor, training was entirely separate, and I had to serve five years’ gruelling articles.

    The majority of solicitors were non-graduates, as were a number of High Court judges. Unless you were a law graduate, you had to take all the solicitors’ qualifying law examinations and a law graduate had to take the solicitors’ final examination, as did a transferring barrister, with a few exemptions.

    On one occasion, Lord Chief Justice Parker described the solicitors’ examinations as relatively much more difficult than the bar examinations. Bear in mind that only 17% of solicitors passed the final at a first sitting.

    Well now, there seems to have been some dumbing-down for solicitors since I retired! :-)

    Reply

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