An audience with a solicitor

Philip Parish believes the hurdles that solicitor-advocates face in getting full higher court rights of audience will ultimately disappear, paving the way for better career opportunities. Philip Parish is a solicitor-advocate at Linklaters.

The options open to an aspiring advocate have always been numerous, ranging from criminal or civil, specialist or general practice, in London or the regions. The choices for the young lawyer remain wide and bewildering.

However, up until the last few years, practising as a serious advocate was not a matter of choice. Advocates were inevitably barristers, practising independently from chambers in time-honoured fashion. But times have changed. The first and important career choice for the would-be advocate is now the choice between practice as a barrister and practice as a solicitor-advocate.

The route to becoming a solicitor-advocate is initially the same as for any other solicitor – a degree, professional exams, and a two-year training contract. This has its advantages.

First, it allows lawyers to keep their options open in the initial stages of their career and gives them the opportunity to look at a number of areas of practice, before finally concluding that they do indeed prefer litigating over the multitude of other career options. It is almost impossible to take this type of decision in any sensible way while just part way though a degree at university.

Secondly, it provides a sound all-round legal and commercial basis from which to launch into a more specialised litigation career. The formal requirements under the current regulations for qualification as a solicitor-advocate are:

at least three years of post-qualification practice during which the advocate will be expected to acquire and demonstrate a broad range of advocacy experience in the courts in which he already has rights of audience;

a single paper examination in procedure and evidence; and

completion of a partly assessed five to six day advocacy course.

Two references will also be required (such as from members of the judiciary or other experienced practitioners). The solicitor-advocate then emerges with full higher court rights of audience in either criminal or civil proceedings.

These hurdles do, of course, compare unfavourably with the position enjoyed by a pupil barrister. After completion of the Bar examinations, the pupil barrister undertakes one year of pupillage, but after just six months of pupillage, gains full rights of audience immediately in both criminal and civil courts.

This discrimination against solicitor-advocates is indefensible in the longer term, and will no doubt ultimately be swept away. Indeed, significant moves are already afoot to amend the current regulations to try to achieve a more level playing field.

In the meantime, however, the advantage enjoyed by the Bar should not be overstated. The junior barrister's work during the first few years of practice, certainly at the specialist Bar but also in more general practice, will largely be made up of appearances in the County Court, Magistrates Court, chambers in the High Court, or before other tribunals, where solicitors have equal rights of audience.

Even where hearings do take place in the High Court or Crown Court, the junior barrister is often led by a more senior barrister or QC, and so the direct oral advocacy experience gained by the junior barrister “on his feet” in the higher courts is limited.

It is no longer a secret that the junior Bar, both specialist and generalist, is finding work harder to come by as solicitors become ever more willing to exercise the rights of audience they have always had, and continue to gain new rights as solicitor advocates.

Most City firms are now enthusiastically investing time and resources in providing the necessary training and support for solicitors who are willing to do the advocacy on their own cases. Solicitors are given first class advocacy training from the Legal Practice Course onwards, and are therefore gaining both confidence and ability.

The “mystique” surrounding advocacy is disappearing as solicitors realise that good advocacy can be taught through training, cultivated through practice and is, in fact, no more than an extension of the traditional skills that good solicitors have always had – namely the ability to communicate clearly and precisely and the ability to persuade. Solicitors are questioning what the junior Bar has to offer which cannot be provided just as well, if not better, in-house.

With a career of 30 or more years stretching ahead, the student lawyer must take a long term view of the future. Without a doubt the legal profession is in a state of flux. The trend towards globalisation of legal services, the pressure for integrated legal services and perhaps multidisciplinary practices, and the effects of the changes in litigation practice to be introduced by Lord Woolf next year will all have a dramatic effect on the profession.

It is an exciting time to be in the legal profession. But it makes career choices even more difficult – wrong choices now may prove difficult to reverse later.

However, these influences for change in the legal profession seem to point in one direction. Many of the changes proposed by Lord Woolf to the civil justice system play to the solicitor-advocate's strengths.

Client demands (often from overseas clients) for integrated services also point in the direction of solicitor advocacy. The opportunities for solicitor advocates have never been better and are continuing to grow.

For the aspiring advocate, the solicitor-advocate route is worth long and serious consideration.