In the English legal system solicitors have traditionally dealt with any legal matter apart from the conducting proceedings in court (advocacy). The other branch of the English legal profession, a barrister, has traditionally carried out that function and advised on complex areas of law. Barristers would not deal with the public direct.
Solicitors in England and Wales are regulated by the Law Society of England and Wales (which wears the hat of both regulator and union) and in order to become a solicitor must have had a qualifying legal education. The most common methods are a normal undergraduate law degree, or a degree in any subject followed by one year cramming law in a course formally called the Common Professional Exam and recently renamed the Postgraduate Diploma in Law. Other routes, for example spending time as a clerk to magistrates, or passing exams set by the Institution of Legal Executives[?] (ILEX) are possible. Up to this point a barrister and solicitor have the same education.
Thereafter they split. Solicitors study a one year course called the Legal Practice Course and then must undertake two years apprenticeship with a solicitor, called the training contract (but still widely referred to as 'articles' as in 'articled clerk' by older members of the profession). Once that is complete, the student becomes a solicitor and is 'admitted to the roll'. The 'roll' is a list of people qualified to be a solicitor and is kept on behalf of the 'Master of the Rolls' whose more important job is that he is the head of the Court of Appeal of England and Wales. Solicitors who are being disciplined by the Law Society can be suspended from the roll or even struck off, which prevents them acting as a solicitor.
Moreover, solicitors must pay the Law Society of England and Wales a practicing fee each year in order to keep practicing. If they do not do this they are 'non-practicing' and may not give legal advice to the public (although they can start practicing again at will, unlike those struck off).
In the UK the strict separation between the duties of solicitor and barrister has been partially broken down and solicitors frequently appear in the lower courts and (subject to passing a test) increasingly appear in the higher courts too (such as the High Court of England and Wales and before the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords). Firms of solicitors now employ their own barristers and solicitor-advocates to do the work, taking it away from the private groups 'sets' or 'chambers' of barristers who formally did the work. Barristers in turn are now directly instructed by certain organisations such as trade unions.
This breakdown is expected to go further in the next few years, with the government pressing the Bar Council (the Barrister's union/regulator) to allow barristers to deal directly with the public. Solicitors are increasingly taking advantage of their increased rights and so it is to be hoped that the old system (never very efficient) will be swept away in the coming years.
The post of solicitor in its modern form dates from the 19th Century which was a time of significant reform in the English Court system. The courts were split between those administering the law of equity and common law and the church courts had far more power. At the time there were a variety of similar jobs, such as advocate, attorney-at-law, proctor, solicitor etc. all of which were entitled to appear before different courts. In the reforms all these posts were swept into one, the solicitor. Accordingly solicitors have a wide power of audience (i.e. they have the right in law to appear on behalf of another and speak on their behalf, even if the individual judges are not keen) and appear before mainstream courts, as well as disciplinary hearings and in courts martial.