Solicitor advocates: The best of both worlds?

Fancy speaking out in court but don’t want the instability of life at the bar? Being a solicitor advocate could be the answer. 

Advocates

For many would-be lawyers, the question of whether to become a solicitor or barrister rests on whether they believe they have the stamina – and resources – to carve out a career at the bar. The stability and security of having a salaried role at a law firm is often too tempting to pass up. But there is a way to combine that security with the thrill of standing up in court.

Solicitor advocates are admitted to represent clients at any level, right up to the Supreme Court. Although still making up a minority of solicitors, the number is growing.

It was only two decades ago that the first solicitor advocates were admitted. The 1990 Courts and Legal Services Act opened up the possibility of representing clients in higher courts once a solicitor had sufficient advocacy training. The first solicitor advocates qualified in 1994. Before this, solicitors could only represent clients in lower courts, such as magistrates’ courts, and in inquiries.

There are two principal advantages of solicitor advocacy. First is that advocates are able to spend time in court engaged in oral advocacy without the unpredictable nature of being self-employed.

Second, unlike a barrister, who only becomes involved with a case once instructed by a solicitor, solicitor advocates usually see the case through from beginning to end, although occasionally they act as external counsel instead. A solicitor advocate often takes a case all the way from being instructed by a client to judgment being handed down, but they can also just act as counsel, being instructed by another solicitor on behalf of a client.

Although solicitor advocates often up doing the same work as a barrister, their dress often differs. While they have the right to wear wigs, many choose not to, and their gowns are slightly different to those of barristers, as they feature a square collar.

Speaking out

The opportunity to become a solicitor advocate varies from firm to firm. Many firms have little need or desire to train them. Others, while they might employ solicitor advocates, do not foster their skills, preferring to keep them in the office and on call for client matters, rather than being unreachable in court.

At firms that do utilise their solicitor advocates’ skills, it is not enough to hope work will fall into your lap. Junior barristers can also find it difficult to get advocacy opportunities, but as a solicitor advocate you have to fight a little more for the opportunity to actually do some oral advocacy work.

Herbert Smith Freehills has a large litigation practice and is one of the firms most invested in solicitor advocates: unusually, it even has its own in-house advocacy unit.

“Before the firm would let me loose on client work, I did quite a lot of pro bono at Whitechapel Legal Advice Clinic,” says one of its solicitor advocates, Graeme Robertson. “I was quite fortunate that I got two cases there that ended up in the small claims court so I was able to persuade the firm I was enthusiastic and able. I had one client who was a tenant, a Japanese student whose English wasn’t very good and whose landlord was not dealing with him fairly. Without any help, he wouldn’t have been able to do anything about it.

“The landlord was really unpleasant so I was pleased to be able to assist my client in court against the landlord’s advocate. We were successful and the landlord ended up having to make a significant payment.”

At the beginning of their careers solicitor advocates, much like barristers, will not be put on the most prestigious of cases. However, possessing the qualifications and skills, and pushing for the opportunities to use them, should open doors.

Training

Would-be solicitor advocates are required to take either a civil or criminal law assessment, depending on the area in which they wish to specialise.

There is no Solicitors Regulation Authority requirement for training beforehand, but firms generally do provide training. Occasionally it will be in-house, but the University of Law course is also a common option.

Training then falls into two sections: written and practical. The written section teaches students about evidence, ethics and general court procedures while the advocacy stage focuses on witness handling, cross-examination and applications, and often include sessions on persuasive public speaking.

Although a nervous junior solicitor might disagree, Eversheds partner and solicitor advocate Marcus Trinick QC believes that every solicitor should try their hand at some advocacy.

“There are far too many lawyers who do not test themselves live – who prefer to sit in their offices,” he says.

“You can buy time to put a situation right when you’re in an office – when you’re on your feet you can’t. It introduces a sense of ultimate reality – but so many are terrified of it. I think it is an important part of being a solicitor. It is just really enjoyable. It’s terrifying to begin with but once you’ve done it, it’s great.”

The bad with the good

While the advantages of solicitor advocacy are manifold, there are disadvantages. The flipside of being able to do everything is that you often end up doing more than you want to. This is particularly true if you are instructed by a more senior solicitor at your own firm. This problem generally rectifies itself over time as you become a mid-level, rather than junior, advocate.

Another common problem is that juggling clients can become more difficult. Unlike taking on too much work from a senior team member, this is an issue that only worsens with time. If a solicitor advocate is in court all day, other client matters are shunted to early morning emails and evening phone calls, making more work for the lawyer and potentially irritating clients.

But becoming a solicitor advocate can represent the best of both worlds.

“I love being a solicitor advocate,” says Robertson. “I have been able to do the work of a junior barrister while in a solicitors’ firm. It has all the security that comes with that, and the other advantage is that I actually like the case management side of things.

“On some cases I can do everything, which is quite unusual. If the case is small enough – a claim of about £0.5m to £1m – I can do it all myself.”

“You can choose your own strategy and it is great fun.”

Case study

Robertson

I started out wanting to go to the bar. I read law at university and a career as a barrister was my initial choice as I was attracted to court work and didn’t want to focus on transactional law so much.

At the end of university I thought about going to the bar. But it was such a risk living in London without a regular income. The solicitor route seemed to offer a more stable alternative and I thought I might get the chance to do some advocacy.

When I arrived at Herbert Smith Freehills, I was keen to take advantage of any opportunities, not just advocacy. During my training contract I enjoyed the transactional and real estate work more than I expected to.

I qualified as a real estate litigator and did a lot of disputes with a property element. The firm encourages all junior disputes associates to undertake internal higher rights training – it isn’t compulsory but most people in disputes want to do it and they think it makes you a better and more rounded disputes lawyer.

The advantage to being in real estate litigation was there were a lot of small claims I could do the advocacy on myself, once I’d qualified as a solicitor. Unlike the larger cases that some parts of the firm deal with, these cases are much more suited to a junior lawyer. I did not undertake oral advocacy in each case but I did a lot of written advocacy, including writing skeleton arguments and drafting statements of case.

The firm offers a secondment to the advocacy group, which I was keen to do. I then decided I wanted to stay – I have now been a full-time solicitor advocate in the advocacy group for over two years.

I am currently preparing a professional negligence claim for trial. I am dealing with everything: trial strategy, applications, trial preparation and dealing with the client. It is so much fun because I can do the case exactly how I want. I am supervised by one of the QCs but do all of the day-to-day work myself.

Herbert Smith Freehills solicitor advocate Graeme Robertson