At the career crossroads
5 July 1996
Students looking to enter the legal profession have traditionally had to decide early on in their studies whether they wish to become solicitors or barristers.
Many factors will influence them. The understandably appealing prospect of regular pay and a well-defined career path will steer many to become solicitors. Others prefer the autonomy of the Bar. Few, however, will ever experience practise on both sides of the profession.
As a result, comparisons of the two have always been made on the basis of assumptions one side of the profession makes about the other. But what is practice actually like for those who start at the Bar?
In specialist chambers, a pupil barrister will probably be very busy from the start. In general chambers where there is a more varied workload, there is no guarantee of a steady volume of work. Extremes are common.
In the opening stages of any pupil barrister's career, paperwork is done slowly (and therefore uneconomically from the point of view of the barrister), partly for fear of giving incorrect advice and partly through an attempt to impress the instructing solicitor with sound and skillful reasoning.
Whether the young barrister practices in a specialist or general set of chambers, there is one experience which can be guaranteed - his or her efforts will not result in payment for a good few months at least in most cases.
Once the barrister has succeeded in obtaining a tenancy and in building some sort of practice, there is little that compares with seeing one's argument succeed in court. Because barristers are self-employed they can, in theory, dictate the hours they work.
The reality is that most young barristers have little control over their (in most cases) very long hours, not least because of the concern that the solicitor whose work is turned away may never return.
The trainee solicitor must overcome different hurdles. Like the pupil barrister, he or she must, above all, be industrious. Even as a trainee, a proven ability to juggle a number of projects at the same time is invaluable.
But unlike the pupil barrister who will spend 12 months before being eligible to take a seat in chambers, the trainee solicitor must spend two years as a trainee. Most trainees are therefore likely to spend four periods of six months in different departments within the firm.
The consequence is that trainee solicitors often have a greater opportunity to gain experience of different types of practice than their Bar counterparts. Eventually they will find one which suits them. There is also a greater opportunity for client contact than exists at the Bar, with the possible exception of barristers who specialise in criminal and family work.
But what about transference between the two sides of the profession? Any barrister who wishes to become a solicitor, must sit the Qualified Lawyers' Transfer Test covering professional conduct, solicitors' accounts and financial services. Thereafter the Law Society must be satisfied that the barrister has undertaken training equivalent to articles in order to grant admission to the roll.
For solicitors who wish to become barristers there are two routes. The first is to sit the Bar Vocational Exams and then to undertake pupillage.
However, a simpler route is to apply to the Bar Council in order to sit its aptitude test.
Solicitors with substantial experience of litigation and advocacy may obtain exemption from the test altogether, although they still have to undertake pupillage.
The outside observer, looking at this situation from a non-subjective standing, might point out that it is a shame the aspiring lawyer cannot have the best of both sides of the profession. Today, thanks to what became the 1990 Courts and Legal Services Act that introduced higher rights of audience for solicitors, such a remark is no longer entirely accurate. For solicitor advocates the grass is greener in the middle.