US Lawyers vs UK Solicitors and Barristers

You could be forgiven for thinking that lawyers in the US and UK have the same job. After all, it’s been difficult to escape popular US legal shows like Suits and the Good Wife. Whilst the British and American legal systems have similar roots, many key differences have emerged. For the purposes of this article, the UK lawyers referred to will be those practising in England and Wales.

The most obvious difference between the UK and US is that the former is divided into solicitors and barristers, whilst the latter is a unified profession. This means when you employ a lawyer in the US, they will undertake duties typically associated with either a solicitor or a barrister in the UK. In the US there is no distinction between non-litigation and litigation lawyers when qualifying.


Those wishing to pursue a career as a solicitor or barrister in the UK can do so by earning an LLB undergraduate degree. An alternative route for individuals who have undertaken a non-law degree, like a BA or a BSc is to do the GDL (Graduate Diploma in Law), which in effect condenses three years’ worth of a law degree into one year. That said, the UK system’s transition to the SQE is in turn changing the nature of the GDL. In contrast, those attending college in the US don’t have to major and therefore earn their undergraduate degree in anything in particular. This is because would-be US lawyers have the additional hurdle of attending three years of law school following their undergraduate degree.

As such, US undergraduates are free to major what interests them most, although many choose subjects with transferable skills which they’ll find useful in their post-graduate studies, like history or international relations. This does not, however, mean that undergraduate studies in the US are simply a steppingstone to law school. Many law schools place a great weight on a student’s undergraduate degree GPA, in addition to their LSAT score. The LSAT (Law School Admission Test) is used by US law schools to aid in predicting whether a student will be successful in their studies at law school by testing a candidate’s verbal and logical reasoning and reading comprehension proficiency.

In the UK, once a student has completed their undergraduate studies in law or non-law and the GDL, students take either the BPTC (Bar Professional Training Course) or the LPC (Legal Practice Course), soon to be replaced by the SQE (Solicitors Qualifying Exam). As is implied, the BPTC is for students hoping to become barristers, with the LPC/SQE for solicitors. Following successful completion of either the LPC or SQE, would be solicitors embark on a period (normally two years) of compulsory practical training known as a training contract prior to qualifying as a solicitor.

A similar process must be undertaken by would be barristers, who in turn undertake a yearlong pupillage in a barristers’ chambers. Similarly, in many US states, those who have completed their law degree are expected to undertake a training year known as articling. This is typically undertaken prior to taking the bar exam, following which they become a qualified lawyer in that state. It is worth noting that because the US is a federal republic, when passing the bar lawyers are only eligible to practise in that state and are therefore required to pass the bar of each state in which they wish to practise. 

Compensation, career progression and work-life balance

Typically, associates in US law firms have been paid considerably more than their equivalents in the UK. According to research undertaken by Chambers Associate, first year associates at Skadden’s US offices can expect to earn $190,000, and those at Wilkie Farr can expect $205,000. However, the majority of US associates will have taken out incredibly large student loans to fund their undergraduate and law school studies by the time they qualify in typically their mid to late twenties.

In contrast, Newly Qualified solicitors at Wilkie Farr & Gallagher’s London office can expect to earn £120,000, but those individuals are likely to have considerably lower student loans than their colleagues who qualified in the US. Moreover, US firms pay their associates high salaries in part because they have a poorer work-life balance. Many US firms expect their associates to bill 2000 hours a year as a minimum, which is achieved by having fewer associates per team. Whilst work-life balance is very much dependant on the firm’s culture amongst other things, top UK city firms, like those in the Magic Circle do tend to have more reasonable working hours than their US counterparts.

Moreover, when it comes to training, UK firms have a reputation for investing in high quality training for their trainee solicitors, unlike US firms. Whilst attempts are being made by US firms to redress this balance, they retain a reputation for prioritising billing hours over the development of their associates.

That said, career progression is challenging on both sides of the Atlantic.  US Partners are expected to bring in considerably more business than those seeking Partnership positions in the UK. Indeed, fewer associates at US firms in theory means fewer competitors for top positions. However, successfully securing Partnership does not solely depend on whether you’re hoping to do so at a US or UK firm, but your practice area and experience amongst a plethora of other factors.