We may all need to avail of legal services for a whole variety of different reasons. If we buy a house, seek to claim compensation after an accident, look to defend ourselves against an injustice or participate as jurors or witnesses in court, we find ourselves in direct contact with the law.
The legal profession is made up of solicitors, barristers, judges and various administrative roles.
In the Republic of Ireland, the number of solicitors and barristers has been undergoing a considerable growth spurt over the the last number of years due mainly to the growth in property development, the economic growth of multinational business, globalisation, and the ever-expanding development of the European Union.
However, this sector, like all others, is already showing a decline due to the economic slowdown and in particular, due to slow down in the property sector.
[Detailed information on the Irish Justice System is available from the Citizen Information website]
Solicitors are best described as general legal practitioners. They may find themselves offering legal advice to individuals or to organisations such as a trade union, a local authority or a private company. The people or organisation they work for are called clients.
As consultants to their clients, they give legal advice and information; they process and implement legal procedures and transactions. The work is generally very varied. The individual client for example may be seeking advice on an industrial injury, family law matter or house purchase. Clients may also be seeking to take someone to court.
Nowadays more specialised legal knowledge is often demanded by clients. Bigger solicitors firms tend to engage more in specialised work for corporate and commercial clients.
Key specialist areas include:
- Family law
- Intellectual property
- Employment law
- Criminal law
- Corporate and commercial
- European Union and competition
Training to be a solicitor in the Republic of Ireland takes almost three years from start to finish. Entry into this profession is competitive. The vast majority of students would first have completed a degree, though not necessarily a law degree. The Law Society of Ireland, Blackhall Place, Dublin is responsible for the education and training of solicitors. Completion of their Professional Practice Courses plus an apprenticeship with an approved solicitor is necessary. [details here]
Barristers act as consultants to solicitors. Their job is more specialised and they engage more in research. A person who has a problem and wants legal advice must first approach a solicitor. If the problem proves complex the solicitor will then consult the barrister. The barrister will interpret the law in relation to the client’s problem or situation. He or she will give an opinion on how strong the client’s case or argument is and will advise on the best course of action to be taken.
If the case goes to a higher court (the Circuit Court, the High Court, the Supreme Court) it is the barrister that presents and argues the case for the client. They also help to develop legislative programmes and draft laws.
All newly qualified barristers must spend a minimum of twelve months apprenticeship with an experienced barrister. Their working life is guaranteed to be insecure for the first four to five years. It can be difficult to become established, and financial support from family is needed in the early years.
When a newly qualified barrister is called to the Bar, they are known as a Junior Counsel. A Junior Counsel can apply to become a Senior Counsel after 15 years’ experience. Senior Counsel will generally practice only in the High Court and Supreme Court. They would usually specialise in a particular area of law.
Judges in Ireland are appointed by the President acting on the advice of the Government. In cases where there is no jury required, it is the judge who decides which party shall win or lose in a case. He or she listens to the evidence of both sides and to the submissions of the barristers (or solicitors). The judge may ask questions of any witness and of the barristers (or solicitors). If there is a jury in the case, it is the jury that decides the outcome of the case. The judge merely provides guidance to the jury and makes sure that the trial is run properly.
Judges must have at least 10 years experience as a barrister or solicitor and usually they have many more years of experience before they are appointed.
Other Legal Roles
A significant number of legal professionals are employed at various levels of Government, playing a key role in the Criminal Justice System by investigating cases for the Department of Justice and other departments.
There are many opportunities available also in the legal support area. Legal receptionists, administrators and secretaries are all required to support the work of the solicitors and barristers. Within the courts are also Court registrars and stenographers. Many colleges offer training courses in these areas.