The United States and England share a proud legal tradition that has evolved during the nearly thousand years since the Norman Conquest.
At the most basic level, our legal systems are the same – both are common law systems, which are easily distinguished from the civil law mechanisms rooted in the 19th century Napoleonic code.
In both countries, judicial interpretation and stare decisis form the core of jurisprudence and of daily legal analysis undertaken by all kinds of lawyers. In court proceedings, attorneys argue and present evidence in a decidedly adversarial fashion.
Indeed, with but two exceptions (Louisiana and Quebec), US and Canadian legal systems are direct descendants of the English common law tradition.
But despite the similarities, there are a few significant differences.
For example, only recently have the British established a national Supreme Court (previously, the Judicial Council of the House of Lords served as a rough equivalent). And British jurisdictions are not split according to federal principles as are their US and Canadian counterparts.
What’s more, an important distinction marks the English legal profession — a distinction not found in either US or Canadian law systems.
Solicitors vs Barristers
Although they are all attorneys, English and Welsh lawyers are classified as either solicitors or barristers — and each play a different role in serving clients. While oversimplified here for the sake of brevity, the basic difference is fairly simple.
Solicitors act as agents of the client, much as a transactional lawyer would in the US and Canada. They negotiate contracts, draft cease and desist letters, write divorce petitions, undertake investigations into opposing parties, etc. Effectively, solicitors perform the legal work that doesn’t make for compelling television, and with only a few recently implemented exceptions, they do not appear in court.
Barristers, conversely, plead on behalf of clients. They are the lawyers who appear and argue in court, resplendent in the robes and wigs made popular by Rumpole of the Bailey, examining witnesses on the stand and imploring the judge or jury to decide for their client… like Perry Mason or Ben Matlock. But their contact with clients is strictly limited, very often only beginning the day before trial.
Truly, many US and Canadian lawyers share some of the distinctions, specializing in transactional work or trial work (and Canadian attorneys often use the solicitor/barrister distinction colloquially to describe their areas of practice). But the profession is effectively fused in the US law system. Simply put, we have barristers and solicitors as well — we just do not delineate the two.