I am a fan of courtroom drama. A Few Good Men is a favorite movie of mine and, if I’m channel surfing, I’ll usually stop for a while on an episode of Law and Order if I can find one. The building of the case, the inevitable surprises that arise in court forcing the attorneys to rebuild their strategy on the spot, the concept of the adversarial process – I find it compelling to watch.
As you can see by the clip I featured above, for a long time my impression of the legal system in the UK was that the lawyers and judges wore funny wigs and there were a lot of “m’lords” being thrown around the courtroom. I also knew there were different terms for lawyers – solicitors and barristers – but I didn’t know if they were interchangeable. Then I watched a legal drama called New Street Law and some of my questions were answered.
The simplest way I can think to explain the legal process as I understand it is to use an example from the show. A teenaged girl has been accused of arson. She hires, or is appointed, a solicitor. This solicitor assesses the case, files any necessary documents and approaches a barrister, Jack Roper (John Hannah), who specializes in defense cases. He agrees to represent her client in the courtroom proceedings. In a nearby, but much more posh, office we find the chambers of Laurence Scammel QC (Queen’s Counsel) and his whole family of barristers who concentrate on prosecution of cases for the Crown. Laurence (Paul Freeman) is assigned to this case as well and then things go pretty much as they do on American legal dramas. The girl is hiding something that Jack has to figure out in order to keep her out of jail. He is our idealistic protagonist so things usually go his way in the end and he gets to stick it to his old mentor, Scammel.
This series features civil cases as well with barristers from both firms being retained, again through a solicitor, to represent one side or the other in damages lawsuits and domestic disputes. It is unrealistic that the same two solicitors bring in the majority of the business to Jack Roper’s chambers. It’s also unlikely that, in a city the size of Manchester, Roper and Scammel would always pitted against one another in a bitter rivalry stoked by a past personal betrayal .
But from watching New Street Law (a BBC One program), I learned about the division of labor between solicitors (the general legal advisors and paperwork producers – wills, real estate transactions, and other legal documents) and barristers (the courtroom specialists). I welcome any recommendations on other legal drama series since I haven’t come across many so far!
The link below will take you to an article that more accurately describes the barrister/solicitor distinction through a discussion about those slighty scary wigs.