Vermont Bar Journal
Summer 2008 - #12.
Old England to New England A Lighthearted Look at the British Legal System
The Vermont Bar Journal #174, Volume 34, No. 2 SUMMER 2008
Old England to New England A Lighthearted Look at the British Legal Systemby Duncan McNeill, Esq.When anyone discovers I practiced law in England, the same question is always eagerly asked: "Did you have to wear a wig?" So, in the hope of avoiding too many more disappointed looks, I will deal with this question once and for all: I did not. This unfortunate answer usually elicits a look of undisguised suspicion and I'm sure people are thinking, "Rumpole of the Bailey wears one. Are you sure you were a lawyer in England?" We then find ourselves mired in a lengthy discussion about the differences in the United Kingdom between a barrister and a solicitor, until my once enthusiastic questioner slowly backs away mumbling something about leaving the kettle on.
So on this distinction I will try to be brief. The legal profession in the U.K. is divided into solicitors and barristers. Solicitors are the same as U.S. attorneys in almost every way. A client in need of legal advice engages a solicitor who will represent the client as needed, including by going to court. Barristers come into play in three scenarios: highly specialized law (such as, say, shipping litigation), extremely high value cases, and serious crimes. For the most part, barristers are retained by solicitors on behalf of a client, and are instructed by solicitors on how to handle the matter, such as whether to offer an opinion on the merits of a case or, sometimes, to carry out the advocacy in a trial. Most importantly of course, it is the barristers who wear the wigs.(fn1) So I was a solicitor-- sadly no wig--and after two years in the United States, my wife Sara and I have yet to tire of taking photos of me looking forlorn and pointing dejectedly at a "No Solicitors" sign (alright, my wife has got tired of this but I still have a way to go).
Despite these "cultural" differences, I believe the basic traits of the legal profession, such as ethics, confidentiality, professionalism, client care, and high quality work product, are the same. I will therefore mention some of my personal experiences from trainee to newly qualified solicitor in the U.K. that may have differed from those of my peers who have come through the U.S. system.
I took the traditional and fastest route through my legal education, three years of undergraduate law study, and then one year of law school before entering the workplace as a trainee solicitor. Before any young lawyer becomes a fully qualified solicitor, he or she must complete a two-year traineeship with a law firm, which usually pays the trainee using the monkey/peanuts model for salary computation, otherwise known as the Law Society Guidelines: "Recommended Minimum Salary." Unlike what I understand to be the pay scale at large U.S. law firms for recent law school graduates, the U.K. pay scale recognizes that it is...