What is a lawyer?

Since I ceased to practise as a solicitor – and have explained that to people – it is clear they are baffled by the different types of lawyers and the distinctions between them.

To start, I reckon that anyone who earns their living in the law, whatever specific lawyer they are, is “a lawyer”: judges, barristers, solicitors, legal academics, licensed conveyancers, legal executives, magistrates’ clerks, para-legals, etc, are all “lawyers”.

The distinctions between some types of lawyers are getting fuzzier than they used to be: it used to be that a solicitor was like a GP, acting as the interface with clients, expected to cover a wide range of legal topics, and being mainly office workers; while barristers specialised in their particular areas of law, represented clients in court and did not routinely meet their clients – except at court.  Now, all lawyers tend to specialise; solicitors as well as barristers can represent clients in court – even in the higher courts, if appropriately qualified; barristers are allowed direct contact with clients, rather than having to deal through solicitors. Whether this is a good thing or not is arguable, but it encourages competition and tends to break down barriers.

Judges are still largely appointed from the ranks of barristers, but now solicitors with appropriate experience can be – and are – appointed, too.

Lawyers who have not qualified as solicitors or barristers in the past tended to be “legal executives” employed by solicitors and focused on a particular area of law – conveyancing, probate, litigation, whatever.  Now, with the introduction of “licensed conveyancers”, someone who might have been a legal executive specialising in conveyancing or probate can instead qualify as a licensed conveyancer, which allows the option of running their own firm – though they can still be employed, of course.

Now there are “alternative business structures”, in which non-lawyers can have controlling interests – threatening not only my definition of “lawyers” with which I started this post but (in my view) small and medium-sized firms of solicitors generally.  As well as the corporate organisations – such as the Co-Op – running legal services businesses, it will only be a matter of time before large and medium-sized firms of accountants decide to bolt a legal services arm onto their business; I think this will be the death knell for all but the largest firms of solicitors.

The general trend, therefore, seems to be away from the middle, to large firms and alternative business structures in one direction or small firms and sole practitioners in the other. As my experience (and that of over a hundred other firms) shows, practising as a sole practitioner solicitor or small firm of solicitors is going to be ever lessfinancially viable; I hope that licensed conveyancers will be able to take over that rôle, as I do not believe individuals or small business owners want to become part of the harvest for large firms of lawyers – individual relationships do still count for a lot.

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