Rather than being, as some imagine, the latest flavour of Dutch cream liqueur, a solicitor advocate is a solicitor who has acquired higher rights of audience, meaning that they can represent their clients in a wider range of courts than most solicitors. Solicitor advocates have appeared in cases all the way up to House of Lords (now the Supreme Court) level.
So what is the difference between a solicitor advocate and a barrister?
Solicitor advocates are tireless workhorses providing a modern “cradle-to-grave” service to their clients, which encompasses every aspect of their requirements, from the first meeting through to resolution of their case at trial and beyond.
Barristers are self-employed free-spirits, able to focus their considerable skills on honing written and oral advocacy to a fine peak and capable of securing enormous fees for their talents.
How about the more important differences? I don’t care what sort of work I do, but I really want to wear the horsehair wig, bands and stuff gown. Does that mean I have to become a barrister?
No need to worry! Since January 2008 and the making of Practice Direction (Court Dress) (No. 4) by the then Lord Chief Justice, solicitor advocates have been entitled to wear a wig in any of the circumstances in which a barrister would be allowed to wear one. They do still have to wear the solicitors’ gown though!
OK, I’m persuaded, how do I become a solicitor advocate?
The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) recommends that all aspiring advocates should have successfully completed the advocacy module of the LPC before considering applying for higher rights.
The first formal step under the present system (see the imaginatively titled Solicitors Higher Rights of Audience Regulations 2010 for full details) is completion of an assessment administered by the SRA designed to measure advocacy competence.
There are separate assessments for Civil and Criminal Higher Rights, and either or both of these may be taken. Once the assessment is completed you can then apply for the higher courts advocacy qualification and, once that is given, you will be a solicitor advocate.
Wow, sounds great! Can I start right now?
In light of the SRA’s recommendations about completion of the advocacy module in the LPC, the earliest you are likely to be able to start preparing for the assessments is during your training contract. Those yet to apply to firms may therefore wish to investigate whether the firm will support their ambition to become a solicitor advocate.
There is nothing in the regulations to prevent you applying for and undertaking the assessments during your training contract, but do also bear in mind that you cannot make the application for the higher courts advocacy qualification until you have been admitted to the roll at the conclusion of your training.
OK, so what firms take on solicitor advocates?
Any sort of firm may do. Some firms run entire in-house advocacy units, while others may have only one or two advocates operating within their dispute resolution or crime teams. Don’t let the absence of any other solicitor advocates deter you from a firm that you are really interested in though; as Confucius once wrote: “A law firm without a solicitor advocate is like a well without a bucket”. Their lack may be your opportunity.
Anything else I should be thinking about?
Although there is no need to specialise in any particular field to become a solicitor advocate, the separate competence assessments for Criminal and Civil advocacy mean that the majority of aspiring advocates will at least have to make a decision about the Courts they are likely to want to practice in.
Also bear in mind that completion of the qualification process is not the end of the story. You will be obliged to complete further mandatory training during the first five years after obtaining the qualification and it’s likely that you will want to continue to develop your skills throughout your professional life.
Changes that may be coming in the future in order to safeguard the quality of advocacy provision could involve a requirement regularly to apply for re-accreditation, meaning further commitments of time and cost by you and your firm.
For all that, it is a specialism that is very rewarding (both personally and professionally) for you to develop. Best of luck!
Written by Will Richmond-Coggan
Will is a solicitor advocate and director in the Dispute Resolution team at Pitmans. He is a former barrister and a committee member of the Solicitors Association of Higher Court Advocates, the association which supports solicitor advocates throughout England and Wales through training, education and mentoring schemes. It currently has a membership of around 1,200 solicitor advocates.