How to decide whether to become a Barrister or a Solicitor

The Irish and UK system still maintains a division between solicitors and barristers; in essence the former are advocates whilst the latter work on all aspects of the legal matter. Different skill sets are required and each has its own individual pathway into practice. I will cover both of these pathways in a blog posts in the coming weeks. Deciding which is the one for your will be one of the most important choices you will make as a law student or an individual (as you do not have to have a law degree to pursue the solicitor route in Ireland, but do need to obtain a Level 8 degree and pass all eight FE-1 examinations).

I have had the privilege in my current job to work with some incredible solicitors over the past three years, and the experience of training as a Barrister at the Honorable Society of Kings Inns so I mean it when I say that both are incredible professions but which one you will go for really depends on you! You need to keep in mind that although they are separate, they are complementary roles.

The Main Differences

Obviously the biggest and most stark difference is that barristers represent clients in courts and tribunals. They are usually seen as a legal specialist in a particular area. For example, in Ireland, you may have a barrister who works predominantly on Judicial Review/Administrative matters for Immigration & Asylum. While solicitors will generally deal with the day to day and all aspects of the cases, barristers tend to be engaged for legal advice and opinions on complex areas of law, as well as at point of litigation. Furthermore, in Ireland, Barristers do not handle clients; funds; ensure safe custody of original documents, or provide the regular administrative services which persons would expect from a firm of solicitors, barristers are retained for specific cases, predominantly as advocates.

Unlike the UK, Ireland does not currently operate a chambers system. Therefore each individual barrister is self-employed and they themselves are their own business. They get business through connections and referrals from solicitors within their network. Therefore, you tend to work alone in your work and you generally do not have the same support networks a lot of solicitors in practice will have. Another stark difference and big consideration of many is that unlike solicitors, barristers are not in receipt of a definite salary, particularly in your first two years of practice, commonly referred to as devilling.

A solicitor, in contrast, may go to court if they work in a litigation team or litigious matters such as family or criminal law but will be sat facing the barrister, assisting them, when prompted, such as if a question arises in the court regarding service, last contact with client etc. or personal circumstances of the client. A solicitor will never speak directly to the judge or jury – unless in some District Court matters in which a person may just be represented by a solicitor and not a barrister. Solicitors do in fact have a right of audience before all courts, but tend to rely on services of barristers to present their clients’ cases. This is mainly because advocacy requires distinct skills and expert knowledge of court rules and procedure which barristers are trained to provide.

The Skillsets

If you’re coming out of university with a degree, then theoretically you’re equally well-placed to become a barrister or a solicitor. If you have a non-law Level 8 degree, you’re still in the running to becoming a solicitor BUT not a barrister. You must have an approved law degree in order to be eligible to be a Barrister. I cover this in a lot more detail in my previous blog post focusing on the entrance examinations.

Nonetheless, each requires a very different set of skills and qualities.

For a barrister you will have to have the following:

  • A talent for advocacy – do not fear this does not have to be something that comes naturally to you at the beginning but you have to at least have a passion for advocacy and a relentless will to get up in class at the drop of a hat and practice your advocacy skills. Public speaking in any form CANNOT be avoided if you wish to be a barrister.
  • Ability to think on your feet – you will have to develop active listening skills and have the ability to respond to the question quickly and accurately when you’re put on the spot in court.
  • Willingness and motivation to work on your own – In Ireland, we operate an independent bar, therefore you are self-employed and will generally work alone on a number of cases, therefore you have no 9-5 system or no manager looming over you. You need to develop your own get up and go to push yourself to be on your feet, and even more so to look busy when you have yet to be instructed on any work.
  • Ability to financially plan – as you are self-employed, in order to succeed you will have to be willing to deal with initial financial insecurity, furthermore, you will also have to have responsibility for your own finances including tax etc. when you are paid.
  • Outstanding oral and written communication – this is key to advocacy and something you will work on and develop over the time of your practice.
  • Good judgment.
  • Commitment – being a barrister takes a special type of commitment, you need to be able to role with the punches each day, motivate yourself on days when you know you are basically going to earn nothing and give everything your all in order to stand out to solicitors.
  • Attention to detail – there is nothing more awkward when you refer to a section of an affidavit, exhibit or noting to a Court that something is in your pleadings when it’s not.
  • An interest in learning about new areas – as a Barrister in Ireland you can’t refuse work i.e. you can’t say ‘oh I’ve no interest in commercial law therefore I won’t accept this brief….or ah sure I think he is guilty like there is no defence here.’ Ethically that is a no go, unless there is an ethical reason such as conflict of interest because you acted for the other party previously in a similar matter or you do not have time to dedicate to the matter because you havebeen instructed in a number of other matters prior to this matter then you can’t refuse.

Skill set required for a solicitor:

  • Teamwork skills
  • Motivation/dedication
  • Resilience – this is super important as you will be interacting with clients on a daily basis and possibly on contentious issues, therefore you will need to have a level of resilience in order to cope.
  • Excellent sector and commercial awareness – e.g. if you are working in a family law unit, you will have to have excellent awareness of all legal developments in your particular sector and strive to keep yourself educated and updated on a daily basis.
  • Honestly and Integrity – this is key particularly as in Ireland, solicitors generally hold client monies or originals of client documents.
  • An active listener.
  • People skills.
  • Perseverance – not every seat you will take in your two year training contract will be something you love or something you’re super passionate about.
  • Ability to communicate legal concepts/matters in an accessible way – this is particularly of value as when you are consulting with a client, there is no point in referring to a number of statutory provisions which apply. You need to be able to be concise and accessible with the information you provide.

Skills which apply equally to both are:

  • Stamina – be able to deal with very early mornings and late nights.
  • Excellent interpersonal skills – you’ll need to be able to get on with a wide range of people.
  • Excellent communication skills.
  • Love of reading – or grit and discipline to read and cipher through a lot of documents.
  • Good judgment skills – be able to draw reasonable, logical conclusions or assumptions from often very limited information.
  • Analytical skills i.e. ability to absorb and interpret large quantities of often complex information and have the ability to draw out pertinent facts and key issues.
  • Thorough, methodical and patient approach to research.

As mentioned in the introduction, both are incredibly versatile and worthwhile professions. Becoming either is an enormous undertaking in terms of time commitment and financial investment. However, I can truly say that the work is definitely rewarding.

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