The Legal profession


   'The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.'

   William Shakespeare, King Henry VI, Part2, Dick to Jack Cade.

   'That whether you're an honest man or whether you're a thief,

   Depends on whose solicitor has given me my brief.'

   W. S. Gilbert, Utopia limited.


In most countries there is only one legal profession. This means that all the lawyers have roughly the same professional education leading to the same legal qualifications, and they are permitted to do all the legal work that has to be done. In England the system is different. Here the profession in the main is divided into two types of lawyers, called solicitors and barristers. Solicitors and barristers are all qualified lawyers, but they have a different legal training; they take different examinations to qualify, and, once they have qualified, they usually do different types of legal work. This is why it is said that there are two 'branches' of the legal profession.

  Lawyers may be either solicitors or barristers. They cannot be both at the same time, but it is possible for a solicitor to become a barrister, and for a barrister to become a solicitor. Lord Widgery was Lord Chief Justice of England in the 1970s. He started his career in the law as a solicitor. He then became a barrister, and eventually the most senior judge in the land. A recently retired Supreme Court Justice, Lord Collins, was a solicitor.

  We will look more closely at the work of solicitors and barristers in Chapters 11 and 12. The legal profession as such has never been popular, and no doubt Shakespeare always got a rousing cheer from his audiences when Dick spoke the words quoted above to the rebel Jack Cade. Indeed, the first thing that revolutionaries usually do on seizing power is to overthrow the legal system, blaming it for their ills, and swiftly condemning supporters of the old order in 'trials' of their own devising: Revenge is Justice! Lawyers are possibly unpopular for another and more mundane reason. People who lose their cases often blame their lawyers, and resent paying their fees; people who win often believe that as a justice was on their side they would have won anyway, and resent paying their fees.

  Nevertheless, anyone who has been involved in legal matters or who has been to court will quickly appreciate how difficult and unwise it is for people to conduct their own cases: hence the saying that a man who represents himself 'has a fool for a client'. Anyone who values freedom and individual rights will know that throughout our history lawyers have fought for and gained civil rights in the courts. The careers of successful barristers have been followed like those of film stars, and judges who have confirmed those freedoms, sometimes against great opposition, have been popular and revered.

  Although lawyers may be at 'daggers drawn' during a case, there are rules of behaviour –codes of professional conduct- which provide that when in court they must always be courteous to one another. Whenever lawyers of any kind appear together in court, they always refer to one another as 'my learned friend'. The other side of this coin is that however close lawyers may be as personal friends, they must never allow their friendship to get in the way of doing their duty on behalf of their clients. They will never tell one another the professional secrets of their side of the case, and they must always try as hard as they can, whether their professional opponents are people they like or dislike.

  Anyone who seeks the advice and help of a solicitor or a barrister is known as a client. Solicitors and barristers must do the best they can for their clients; but first and foremost they have a 'duty to the court' to behave honourably, and not do anything that they know will mislead the court and harm the interests of justice. What does this mean? How can lawyers representing opposite sides in a case all be acting honourably in the best interests of justice? Surely at least one team of lawyers must believe, or at least suspect, that their client's case is wrong?

  'But what do you think of supporting a cause you know to be bad?' asked the young barrister James Boswell of his friend Dr Samuel Johnson (writer, author of the great Dictionary of the English Language, and a man with a genius for argument). Dr Johnson replied, 'Sir, you do not know it to be good or bad until the judge determines it…An argument which does not convince yourself may convince the judge; and if it does convince him, why, then, Sir, you are wrong and he is right! It is his business to judge; and you are not to be confident that a cause is bad, but to say all you can for your client, and then hear the judge's opinion'.

  This short extract from Boswell's life of Samuel Johnson, first published as long ago as 1791, shows that this is a question that has troubled people.

·        In a criminal trial it is the duty of the prosecution to disclose to the defence anything in their possession which may undermine their case or assist the defence.

·        In cases where the prosecution depends upon the identification of the criminal by eyewitnesses, the judge must warn the jury that it is always possible for identification to be mistaken and that the jury must consider that type of evidence with special care.

Each of these rules is now regarded as extremely important. Each is an outstanding example of a situation where the development of the law is almost entirely due to the tireless work of lawyers who have believed that defendants have suffered injustice, and who have dedicated themselves to proving it, and having the injustice put right. We will also see examples in the civil law, for instance in the field of human rights, where committed and dedicated lawyers have helped to shape our freedoms and the freedoms of those who have either chosen to live in this country, or been forced to do so as victims of human trafficking.


The payments received by lawyers for their work are called their fees. The legal fees in any court case are called the costs of the case. The fees earned by the vast majority of lawyers do not approach the high fees that are sometimes referred to in the press. Many young lawyers find it difficult to earn a living wage.

  Whenever clients can afford to pay their costs, they pay them ('privately'). This is so whether they are individuals, or companies which need to have legal work done for them. If the legal work involves litigation, which means fighting a case in a civil court, and they win, they will normally be entitled to an order that the other side should pay their costs; but if they lose, they will usually be ordered to pay not only their own costs but also those of the winning side.

  In many cases litigants cannot afford to pay the fees of their lawyers. They may apply for legal aid, which means that if they qualify for it the state will pay either their full legal fees or at least part of them. For instance, anyone who is arrested and charged with a serious criminal offence who cannot afford to pay for his defence will be entitled to ask for legal aid. If he is taken into custody (kept at a police station) the police must offer to arrange for his representation immediately. Legal aid may also be granted in some civil cases, although it is a matter of great concern that the scope of legal aid to fund civil litigation has been considerably reduced.

The legal aid scheme was first introduced in 1949. Legal aid is now recognised to be one of the most important social advances of the last century, and it undoubtedly provides many lawyers with their main source of income.

  Many people who have legal problems do not know what to do at all, or are worried about going to a solicitor for advice in case they should be asked to pay legal fees which they cannot afford. They can receive free advice at their local Citizen's Advice Bureau or Law Centre. These offices do excellent work. Many public-spirited citizens, including qualified lawyers–even law students–help in giving free advice. If the case is sufficiently serious and may mean going to court or receiving formal legal advice they will advise how to approach solicitors–either at a law firm or Law Centre–and, if possible, apply for legal aid.

·        Some of the most valuable of these legal services are given by Free Representation Units (FRUs). There are two major FRUs. The first, founded in 1972, is a registered charity and provides legal advice, case preparation, and advocacy in tribunal cases for those who could not otherwise obtain legal assistance, for want of personal means or public funding. To provide this service, trained volunteer law students and legal professionals in the early stages of their career 'give confident and competent support for the rights of others'. The second was established in 1987 by the university of Central England (UCE) School of Law, and is run under the supervision of lecturers. It aims to provide a free legal service to local communities, and at the same time to enhance the education of students of the UCE. Their cases have included matters of employment, contract, welfare benefits, and compensation for criminal injuries.

·        In 1999, a new scheme was launched by the College of Law, the largest training institution for lawyers in the country. It is sponsored by a number of large firms of solicitors, and thousands of law students, as part of their training, work in a network of free legal advice clinics, helping people with their legal problems. The first clinic was set up in Chancery Lane, London, with students helping members of the public with disputes about jobs, housing, small claims, and negligence claims. Similar clinics have now been set up in Guildford, Chester, and York.

·        Some academic institutions now have 'Law Offices' where qualified solicitors employed outside the profession (such as university lecturers) may give advice to members of the public. The University of Northumbria has a Law Student Office, and conducts a 'live client' programme, where students, under qualified supervision, work on real-life cases. In 2001, they scored a notable success for justice. They researched the case of Alex Allen, who had been convicted of robbery and sentenced to eight years' imprisonment. They prepared a submission for the Criminal Cases Review Commission, which revealed that his trial might have been flawed. The case was referred to the Court of Appeal, where Allen's conviction was quashed.

Now a new system of payment of fees has been approved for civil cases. The idea has been imported from America. Under this system, lawyers may agree to take on a case for no fee at all, on condition that if the client wins the case and is awarded damages (money compensation), they will receive their fees. In some cases, where a great amount of work has been done, this may also include an extra 'success' fee. This scheme is called the conditional fees scheme, because the lawyer's payment is conditional on him winning the case. It is also known as 'no win, no fee'.   

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