A "solicitor" is a term used in many Common law jurisdictions for a lawyer who offers legal services outside of the courts. Whereas a barrister advocates and acts in litigation, a solicitor acts as an advisor and representative, often preparing legal documents including contracts, patents,and wills. In the United States, it is also a title used by government attorneys in some government agencies.
In some common law countries including England and Wales, the legal profession is split between solicitors and barristers, and a lawyer will usually only hold one title. However, in Canada and some Australian states, the legal profession has been "fused," allowing a lawyer to hold the title of "barrister and solicitor" and practice in both roles simultaneously. The United States legal system is not considered "fused" because it never had a divided legal profession; there, outside government agencies, the term "solicitor" is merely "one who solicits," not a legal professional.
In the English legal system, solicitors traditionally dealt with any legal matter apart from conducting proceedings in courts (advocacy,) with some exceptions. Minor criminal cases tried in Magistrates' Courts, for example, and small value civil cases tried in county courts are almost always handled by solicitors. The other branch of the English legal profession, a barrister, has traditionally carried out the advocacy functions. Barristers would not deal with the public directly. This is no longer the case, as solicitor advocates may act at certain higher levels of court which were previously barred to them. Similarly, the public may now engage a barrister directly and without the need for a solicitor in certain circumstances.
Moreover, solicitors must pay the Law Society of England and Wales a practising fee each year in order to keep practising. If they do not do this they are "non practicing" and may not give legal advice to the public (although they can start practising again at will, unlike those who have been struck off the roll).
A small proportion of solicitors in England and Wales are licensed by the Archbishop of Canterbury (originally on behalf of the Pope) after further study and examination to practice as Notaries Public. An alternative route to this work, in and around the City of London, is through the Worshipful Company of Scriveners.
This breakdown in the strict separation between barrister and solicitor is expected to go further in the next few years, with Legal Disciplinary Practices and Alternate Business Structures appearing.
Regulation of both barristers and solicitors is being reviewed by David Clementi on behalf of the Ministry of Justice. His final recommendations are expected to include a more unified regulatory system and new structures for cross-profession work.
Traditionally, firms of solicitors can only be owned by solicitors. The government is considering allowing anyone to be able to have a share in the ownership and control of a law firm. This has led to fears that the professional duty of confidentiality solicitors owe to their client will be threatened. The fear is that solicitors will be required to share confidential information with the organisations and individuals who acquire control of their firm, even though those organisations and individuals will not be bound by the professional duty of confidentiality and may use their knowledge of the client's confidential affairs to their own advantage. This is often referred to as "Tesco law," as legal services would be offered directly to the public by solicitors owned and controlled by non solicitors, and it is companies such as the major UK supermarkets (the foremost in this area being Tesco itself, despite Tesco declaring that it has no intentions to move into legal practice) that have expressed a particular interest in owning solicitors to complement their moves into the already deregulated financial services markets.
In Scotland, solicitors are regulated by the Law Society of Scotland, which require prospective solicitors to pass exams in a curriculum set by the Society. Ordinarily, this is done by obtaining an LLB in Scots law at a university approved by the Society, though it is also possible to sit the Society's own exams. Prospective solicitors are then required to take the Diploma in Legal Practice (a one-year course provided by several Scottish universities) and then undertake a two-year traineeships with a law firm before they can qualify as a solicitor. As the Faculty of Advocates used to require a M.A. degree of its candidates, it used to be common to take a five-year combined MA LLB curriculum at the Scottish universities. Those intending to become solicitors who studied law as a first degree were at one time awarded a BL degree.
Prior to the formation of The Law Society of Scotland, solicitors were in most areas organised into a local Faculty of Procurators or Faculty of Procurators and Solicitors. These socities still exist, but their influence has waned. Whereas membership was once required in order to practice law in a particular locality, as long as a solicitor is registered with The Law Society of Scotland this is no longer the case. The local societies are now more likely to provide their members with a well-stocked law library, continuing professional development courses (all solicitors in Scotland are required to complete 20 hours of continuing professional development each year), and bring their members together to more effectively lobby The Law Society of Scotland and The Scottish Government regarding future legal developments.
In Glasgow, The Royal Faculty of Procurators still exists. In Edinburgh, both The Society of Writers to Her Majesty's Signet (now known as the W.S. Society), whose members refer to themselves as a Writer to the Signet (W.S.), and the Society of Solicitors to the Supreme Courts (S.S.C.) are still in existence. In Aberdeen, solicitors can choose to belong to a Society of Advocates in Aberdeen Members are formally referred to as an "Advocate in Aberdeen" to distinguish them from advocates.
In the 18th century, Dr Samuel Johnson marked the change in designation of the lawyers in Glasgow with a jibe about their moving from "procuring" (a play on the title "Procurator," meaning agent, a word still used in the Scottish courts, particularly when one Scottish solicitor is explaining to the court that he is covering a hearing only in the capacity of agent to another solicitor), to "soliciting."
Solicitors in Scotland have full rights of audience in the Sheriff Courts throughout Scotland in both criminal and civil cases. They also have rights of audience in the District Courts (the lowest criminal court in Scotland), although these are now being replaced by Justice of the Peace Courts, in which a solicitor also has a full right of audience. When in court, a solicitor will normally wear a suit and tie together with a Scottish bar gown (a form of black robe).
Irish independence in 1921 was marked more by continuity with the British legal system than with change. The legal profession has remained divided between barristers (or abhcóidí in Irish) and solicitors (or aturnaethe in Irish). However, there has been some blurring of their respective roles over the years. Notably, under Section 17 of the Courts Act 1971, solicitors were granted a right of audience in all courts, although in practice relatively few solicitors act as advocates for their clients in the Superior Courts.
The states of New South Wales and Queensland, however, maintain strongly independent bars, call to which requires extra training. In those states, solicitors' rights of audience before superior courts are theoretically unlimited, but infrequently exercised in practice. Victoria also has an independent bar but solicitors have full right of audience before all courts.
Hong Kong has not fully embraced the "fused profession" trend; solicitors are governed by the Law Society of Hong Kong and barristers are governed by the Hong Kong Bar Association. A person intending to become a solicitor in Hong Kong must have a professional law degree, either LLB or JD or another equivalent degree, and complete the one-year PCLL program. He has also to complete a two-year trainee solicitor contract with a law firm. Solicitor enjoys rights of audience in the lower courts, but the rights do not extend to the Hong Kong High Court and the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal; rights of audience in these two higher courts are restricted to barristers. But this tradition may change in the future. Work related to legislating for higher solicitors' rights of audience is being done - including the formation of a working party under the Chief Justice. The Chief Justice of Hong Kong has nodded to the proposal of creating a special scheme, under which a solicitor would be able to gain the status of "solicitor-advocate" along with higher rights of audience.
Amongst lawyers in Canada speaking English, it is common to refer to one another as solicitors, whether practicing in a solicitor's or barrister's role. Among members of the general public, the term "solicitor" also has a similar commercial connotation to that in use in the United States (see below).
Many cities in the U.S. have enacted municipal ordinances that require the licensing of solicitors and also require them to not solicit at homes or businesses that have posted "No Solicitors" signs. The ordinances of Urbana, Illinois, Marion, Iowa, and Hermosa Beach, California are typical examples.