The basic difference between barristers and solicitors is that a barrister mainly defends people in court and a solicitor mainly performs legal work outside court. There are, however, exceptions.
When people talk about going to see their lawyer, it is usually a solicitor that they will contact. Solicitors can work for a big range of organizations, including commercial or non-commercial law firms, the government and so on. They have specialist knowledge of different areas of the law such as family, immigration and asylum law, civil litigation law and personal injury law.
Most of the time solicitors advise clients, undertake negotiations and draft legal documents. It is primarily a desk job, but does involve travelling to see clients and representing them in court.
Barristers can be distinguished from a solicitor because they wear a wig and gown in court. They work at higher levels of court than solicitors and their main role is to act as advocates in legal hearings, which means they stand in court and plead the case on behalf of their clients in front of a judge. They also have specialist knowledge of the law and so are often called on to give legal advice.
Barristers do not come into contact with the public as much as solicitors. They are given details of a case by a solicitor and then have a certain amount of time to review the evidence and to prepare what they are going to say in court.
Most barristers are self-employed and work in Chambers with other barristers so they can share costs of accommodation and administrators.
And finally – why the wig?
Barristers wear white wigs to provide anonymity, not in the sense of giving a disguise, but disaffection from personal involvement with the case. The white wigs also confer dignity on proceedings of the court.
This is the same thinking as behind many uniforms – for example police, army, nurses – all say “while I am on duty, I put my own feelings aside and represent the law/state/medical system“.