Advocates of change

Solicitor advocates have many advantages over barristers, discovers Leo Schulz. Leo Schulz is a freelance journalist.

One area of agency work expected to grow is that of solicitor advocates. This year, for the first time, two solicitors were created Queen's Counsel. But in practice, solicitors acting as agents have made surprisingly little progress as advocates in the higher courts.

Using a solicitor advocate has several advantages over briefing a barrister, especially in cases which do not require a specialist. The solicitor advocate can often do more than a barrister, such as interviewing witnesses or preparing documents to be lodged with the court. He or she will often be more flexible than a barrister in attending meetings with those involved in a case, while there is usually no need to send a solicitor to accompany the advocate in court.

Solicitor advocates' fees are usually less than those of barristers. In addition, a solicitor advocate is paid only for work done, so if a case is settled out of court there is no need to pay a brief for days booked.

Paul Hampton, a partner at Piper Smith & Basham and president of the Solicitors' Association of Higher Court Advocates, is clear on why solicitor advocates have made so little headway in competing with barristers.

“The advantages are not re-cognised at all,” he says. “They are certainly not recognised to anything like the extent to which they ought to be. Solicitors are not being educated into using solicitor advocates.”

Hampton says the association does not have the resources to publicise solicitor advocate services. Instead, he thinks the Law Society should use its influence and contacts to produce the necessary literature and to run courses on the advantages of using solicitor advocates.

One firm whose partners have made a success of being solicitor advocates is Wyman & Walters. It has established itself in north London and works exclusively on an agency basis for other solicitors. “We do the work we enjoy,” says partner Stephen Walters.

Walters has been a solicitor for 20 years and a solicitor advocate for three. He has extensive experience of taking clients through the entire legal process from charge to judgment. Barristers, by contrast, are largely divorced from a case until it reaches the court hearings stage.

Despite this, Walters says, some solicitors have doubts about using solicitor advocates. “There is reluctance until they get to know us,” he says.

The experience of Lawrence Collins QC, one of the two solicitor advocate silks and a partner in the advocacy department at Herbert Smith, is somewhat different. He works in commercial litigation, competing with the high end of the bar, with barristers who are acknowledged leaders in their specialised fields.

On one particularly complicated case, he worked with a team of three barristers and was brought in for his expertise in international law. He thinks the advantage he has to offer is that he is not always having to compete for another case but can come in on those cases where his skills and experience will make a difference. “Not having to compete in that way is very important,” he says.

But Patrick Allen, managing partner of Hodge Jones & Allen, thinks solicitor advocates have made poor headway because their services are insufficiently differentiated from barristers. “They have the advantages of very low overheads and control of the work, because they don't employ clerks. But really it is very difficult to do both jobs,” he says.

Hodge Jones & Allen makes extensive use of Wyman & Walters in criminal litigation, an area absorbing about a quarter of the firm's workload. Allen says the two firms have a close relationship because Stephen Walters and Andrew Wyman previously worked for the firm. Walters and Wyman have also established themselves as barristers, doing advocacy only and even marketing themselves as Alverston Chambers.

“It's better to be one thing or the other,” says Allen. “If you want people to be advocates, you want them to be specialists. It takes intensive preparation to do the job properly. Overseas, where you might have a single qualification, people still tend to do one thing or the other.”

Hampton accepts that it is difficult to compete with barristers at the high end, but contends that most barristers are not that specialised. “The average 'knockabout' case covers a pretty broad spectrum,” he says.