What Is a Solicitor?

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Scales of justice.
Last modified: December 15, 2022

The term “solicitor” is not a rigid designator. Even in current legal jargon, the term can have different meanings. In most common law countries, it denotes a type of legal practitioner.

In the United States, the term solicitor has essentially fallen into disuse, at least for the purposes of private practice. Nevertheless, it remains relevant in the public sphere.

What Is the Modern American Usage of the Term “Solicitor”?

Nowadays, the term solicitor describes specific public servants who fulfill the role of “government lawyers” on the federal or state levels.

No Solicitors
The word solicitor often has negative connotations.

On the federal level, the most representative example is the Solicitor General of the United States. In addition, departmental solicitors are assigned to the Department of the Interior, the Department of Labor, and the Patent & Trademark Office.

On a more local level, the title “solicitor” describes lawyers who assist and represent towns, cities, and counties. 

Various states also have their own solicitors (analogous to the figure of solicitor general), including Massachusetts, Georgia, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, Rhode Island, Delaware, and South Carolina, among others.

In South Carolina, the role of the district attorney is undertaken by the South Carolina Circuit Solicitor, tasked with prosecuting criminal cases on their own behalf or through assigned attorneys.

United States Office of the Solicitor General

The Solicitor General oversees government litigation and represents the federal government before the Supreme Court of the United States.

Law books
Trinity College Library.

The Office of the Solicitor General reports directly to the United States Attorney General and is the fourth-highest-ranking official in the Department of Justice’s organization chart.

The Solicitor General defends the government in almost all cases In which the United States intervenes as a party. Additionally, they file amicus curiae briefs in those matters considered of significant interest to the federal government.

Furthermore, it’s the responsibility of the solicitor general to establish what position the government will take at the Court, in which cases to seek a Supreme Court review, and which adverse decisions from the lower courts should be appealed to.

Differences with Attorney General

The Office of the Attorney General originally exerted all the functions that are now entrusted to the Solicitor General, including the conduction of all Supreme Court suits and cases in which the United States was a party or had interests. 

Supreme Court building
Supreme Court.

However, with the creation of the Department of Justice and the Office of the Solicitor General in 1870, the discharge of these responsibilities was delegated.

Nowadays, the attorney general’s central role is to inform the President of the United States on all matters of law. Likewise, the Attorney General receives instructions directly from the President and other federal executive branch heads and disseminates them to the other DOJ officers.

The Attorney General can suggest litigation strategies, but it’s largely the solicitor general’s responsibility to outline the course of action and line of argumentation in Court proceedings.

Departmental Solicitors

Other United States departments (mentioned earlier) also have their own “Office of the Solicitor” (SOL). These offices are in charge of pursuing the legal requirements of their respective departments and providing legal advice on how they may attain their goals.

The Department of Labor’s SOL represents the secretary and client agencies in defensive litigation, enforcement actions, and alternative dispute resolution measures. Their main concern is ensuring that the United States labor laws are faithfully and justly applied.

Similarly, the United States Department of Interior’s SOL supports the department’s Secretary, Deputy Secretary, Assistant Secretaries, and dependencies (offices and bureaus) in their judicial and administrative proceedings.

These offices manage their own cases, albeit occasionally working in tandem with the Department of Justice and the Office of the Solicitor General.

State Solicitors

State solicitors act independently from their federal counterparts and respond directly to their respective states’ Attorney General. These state solicitors often operate under the title of “solicitor general,” but they’re not to be confused with the federal officer under that same name.

These solicitors generally mostly supervise appellate work for their states and represent their interests when sued as specific entities.

The necessity to have a solicitor general for a specific state coincided with the emergence of appellate practice as a separate specialty. 

Despite this, not all states currently have a solicitor general.

In most cases, the decision to create a solicitor general position is left entirely to the state’s elected officials. Some states – like Wisconsin – created the job through their legislature, while others allowed the state’s Attorney General to appoint their solicitors without previous authorization from the representative body.

Moreover, the specific roles of these solicitors generally vary from state to state. In some states, the Solicitor General is assigned very limited appellate work primarily related to civil matters. 

In others, they have an all-encompassing role, representing the state in virtually all important civil and criminal cases at an appellate level and reviewing every appellate brief that passes through the Attorney General’s office.

Solicitors in Other Common Law Countries

As noted at the beginning, the term “solicitor” in various common law countries refers to a type of legal practitioner. 

In the United States, the term was utilized until the end of the 19th century to identify those specialists who dealt with cases processed in the now-extinct equity courts, while attorneys only concerned themselves with disputes resolved in a court of law.

Solicitors in common law jurisdictions are generally qualified professionals who advise clients and prepare the necessary legal documents to make their cases.

The profession was split into solicitors and barristers in countries like the United Kingdom. The barrister became the variant specialized in courtroom litigation and had rights of audience in the higher courts. 

In contrast, solicitors were relegated to employment tribunals (formerly known as “industrial tribunals”) and lower court cases.

In some Australian states – Queensland, New South Wales, and Victoria – the profession is also split, while in South Australia, Western Australia. Tasmania and the Northern Territory it’s fused.

Lastly, Canada doesn’t distinguish between solicitors and barristers, so lawyers frequently include both words in their job titles.

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