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The Legal Profession and Its Job Opportunities

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The main employment opportunities in the law are to be found in:
  • industry and commerce

  • private law firms (usually partnerships of solicitors) or barristers' chambers

  • central government

  • local government

  • other private and public sector employers

  • voluntary organizations
There are also opportunities to become self-employed. In particular, many barristers and advocates are self-employed.

Barristers, Advocates and Solicitors

A notable feature of the legal system of the UK is that there are two distinct branches of the legal profession. Lawyers are either solicitors or barristers in England and Wales and Northern Ireland, and solicitors or advocates in Scotland. These two branches are separate in their organization, working system and main functions, although there may be a considerable overlap in the nature of their work in individual cases. The training of the two branches is separate. You must choose to become either one or the other in one of the three jurisdictions and, although it is possible to move from one branch to another and from one jurisdiction to another, once you are qualified, it is unusual to do so.

If you are moving in either direction, or changing jurisdictions, you are usually required to undertake further exams or training.

The traditional view is that the relationship between a solicitor and a barrister or advocate is akin to that between a family doctor and a consultant in the medical profession. Solicitors take instructions direct from clients, whereas barristers and advocates are not allowed to deal direct with the public and all their work has to be referred to them by solicitors or (in certain cases) by members of specified professional bodies, such as the Institute of Taxation. However, the traditional view implies that all members of the Bar (as barristers and advocates are sometimes collectively called) are each individually more specialized in their area of work than the solicitors who refer work to them. This is not necessarily the case. In many firms of solicitors, while the organization as a whole undertakes a very broad range of work, the individual solicitors deal only with certain types of case (some may specialize in convincing, others in litigation) and while it is true that many barristers or advocates are specialists, a significant number, particularly in Scotland, have a very broad-based practice.

The main traditional difference between the two branches of the profession was that although solicitors could represent clients in the lower courts and before tribunals (for example, industrial tribunals), barristers or advocates had a 'right of audience' (the right to appear and speak on behalf of a client before a court) before all the courts in the jurisdiction in which they had qualified. It is still the case that, for the most part, a solicitor's day is organized around his or her office, whereas the barrister or advocate is normally involved in a far greater amount of court work. It should be noted, however, that solicitors now have wider rights of audience in the courts, and an increasing number of them will be taking up the option to practice in the higher courts.

Another significant difference between the two branches of the profession is that while solicitors can form partnerships in which the partners are self-employed persons, who can employ other solicitors and other staff, barristers or advocates cannot form partnerships. Barristers in England and Wales work from premises (known as 'chambers') with other barristers, but they remain in practice on their own. Barristers in Northern Ireland and advocates in Scotland do not rent premises in this way but work independently, from the Bar Library at the Royal Courts of Justice in Belfast and the Advocates' Library in Edinburgh respectively.


Judges do not come from a separate profession. In other countries they often form part of the public service and are trained specifically for the job, but in the UK they are appointed by the Crown mainly from among leading barristers or advocates, although some judges (particularly circuit judges) are selected from among the ranks of more senior solicitors.

Not all judges sit in formal court rooms, wearing wigs and robes. Recently there has been an increase in the number of tribunals which have, in effect, a judicial function, such as industrial tribunals and social security appeal tribunals. These often have lay members but the chairman of the tribunal is invariably a lawyer. Tribunals usually hear cases in less formal surroundings, and neither the tribunal members nor the barristers or advocates or solicitors appearing before them wear wigs or gowns.

It is perhaps worth mentioning that in England, Wales and Scotland, justices of the peace (commonly called 'magistrates'), who are the judges most people have dealings with, have no formal legal training at the time they are selected. Although in larger cities 'stipendiary' magistrates are selected from among experienced lawyers, most magistrates are laymen who receive training after their selection and hear cases with the aid of a legally qualified justices' clerk. There are no lay magistrates in Northern Ireland and all magistrates there are either solicitors or barristers of at least seven years' standing. They are called resident magistrates or RMs.

Women in the Legal Profession

Among judges, barristers, advocates and solicitors, men outnumber women, particularly at the higher levels. In the past, women have often had to choose between a career and children. However, there is an increasing number of women now qualifying in both branches of the profession and in all three jurisdictions. Currently, over half the students passing the solicitors' final examination in England and Wales are women. There is thus increasing pressure on the profession to react more flexibly than in the past to women's preferred career patterns.

Ethnic Minorities in the Legal Profession

Traditionally, the number of members of ethnic minorities who worked within the legal profession was small. In particular, very few judges, solicitors or barristers came from ethnic minority backgrounds. The picture is now beginning to change. For example, the Law Society has set the solicitors' branch of the profession proposed employment targets in this area. It is suggested that firms with between six and ten fee earners should try to have one ethnic minority fee earner on the staff, while larger firms should aim for 5 per cent of fee earners and 10 per cent of their trainees to be from ethnic minorities.

Disabled Persons in the Legal Profession

The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 is a landmark measure which gives disabled persons a range of significant new rights in terms of employment and access to goods and services. It applies to employment in the legal profession and should help to break down barriers. In addition, organizations such as the Group for Solicitors with Disabilities are helping to promote a positive image of people with disabilities within the profession and society as a whole.

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