If you are new to the subject of law, you will hear different terms apportioned to the professionals who work within our legal system, but not fully understand exactly what each of them do. Due to the glamorisation of our legal system in film and television, most people will have a concept of many of the legal professional roles; however, this article aims to help you to understand what each role entails and how you can work your way up the ladder.
Legal Secretaries provide vital administrative support to lawyers and can work in the law courts, barristers’ chambers and law firms. They are distinguished from an ‘ordinary’ Secretary through the fact that they hold a good knowledge of the law and legal procedure in order to effectively carry out their work. Qualifications such as ILSPA's Legal Secretaries Diploma helps people to gain the skills needed to perform their role and prove to potential employers that they are competent in the work. Legal Secretaries can advance their careers by taking on Paralegal responsibilities and train to become Paralegals.
Paralegals perform substantive legal work which requires in-depth knowledge of the law and procedure. Paralegals may work for, or be retained by, Solicitors within the legal profession, or they may work within a legal environment within commerce, industry or the public sector. They prepare legal documents, advise clients, undertake important legal research and are required to attend court from time to time. As with Legal Secretaries, they can undertake certain courses in order to gain the relevant knowledge and skills needed, such as those offered by The National Association of Licensed Paralegals.
Legal Executives are fee earning Lawyers and perform very similar work to that of a Solicitor. The role is regulated by the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives and a person can only become a Legal Executive by studying through them. Once qualified, they can progress on to running their own practice or being a partner in a law firm. The difference between Legal Executives and Solicitors is that they study fewer subjects and tend to specialise in one area of law.
One of the best ways in which to think of Solicitors is as general purveyors of legal knowledge. Whilst they can specialise in certain areas of law, members of the public will know that they can approach a Solicitor who will be able to help them with any type of legal issue. Solicitors are there to provide expert legal support and advice. You will not tend to see Solicitors working in a court above County Court or Magistrates’ level as they do not hold what is known as a ‘right of audience’ to represent their clients at the higher court levels. Solicitors are regulated and licenced through the Law Society.
When a Solicitor requires representation for their client in the Crown Court and above, they have to instruct Barristers to take on such a role. It is worth noting that usually only solicitors can instruct the services of a Barrister. Barristers work mainly within criminal law and will either provide a defence for their clients or represent the state (through the Crown Prosecution Service) as a prosecutor. Barristers are regulated by the Bar Standards Board. People who aspire to become Judges later on in their career should take note of the fact that such appointments are usually made from the pool of Barristers.
Nearly all Criminal cases are heard in a Magistrates' Court before a bench of three Magistrates. Whilst they do not necessarily have any formal legal knowledge before they assume their position as a Magistrate, they must have specific qualities such as good communication and sound judgement. Magistrates are provided with basic legal instruction and rely on the expertise of a legal clerk with full knowledge during all court hearings. They only have power to deal with what is known as ‘summary’ and ‘triable-either-way’ offences. The more serious, ‘indictable’ offences must be forwarded on to the Crown Court where they will be tried by a full jury. Anyone can become a Magistrate (subject to various qualities) and the position is unpaid.
The word ‘Judges’ represents a broad range of roles within the court system of England and Wales. This ranges from District and Circuit Judges, who hear cases in the County Court, up to Law Lords who will hear the cases in our highest-ranking court in the land – the Supreme Court. Many people believe that judges are the most important professional role within our legal system. They interpret the law and assess the evidence presented to them. They must be impartial and make important decisions in the pursuit of justice.
So, there we have it, a breakdown of the main professional roles that make up our legal system. The next time you hear any of the titles mentioned, you will have a good idea of what that role entails.