Further research convinces me that the following is the truth of the matter:
In BrE law firms, there is a middle rank of persons who are not qualified solicitors but who perform duties that are other than purely secretarial (in the modern sense). Some of these persons may have their duties billed out to clients of the law firm. If so, they become "fee earners" by definition. If no bill is ever sent to a client for work purportedly done by such a person, that person is, by definition, not (yet) a "fee earner".

A "fee earner" could also be called a paralegal. But some paralegals are not "fee earners". It depends on whether the services purportedly performed by the paralegal are billed to a client in which case the paralegal is both paralegal and "fee earner". There may be some BrE tendency to regard "fee earner" as a more exalted position than "mere paralegal", so there may be some tendency for "fee earner" paralegals to call themselves "fee earners" rather than or instead of "paralegals".

It does not seem that any qualified solicitor would ever call himself a "fee earner" except in a highly specialized context in which "fee earner" would be used to describe any professional staff of a law firm from solicitors on down to service-billing paralegals.
A "legal executive" seems to be a "fee earner", at least ordinarily, and is largely indistinguishable from a paralegal except in that there's some professional self-regulation going on. A legal executive can probably command a somewhat higher salary, on average, than a "mere fee earner" or a "mere fee earner who cannot hold himself out as a legal executive". In AmE the corresonding positions will almost always be "paralegals", except in a few rare situations which I can go into if anyone's interested.

In any case, it seems that no solicitor in his right mind would ever call himself a "fee earner" since it implies lower status and lower salary command (unless of course one is speaking of all professional staff of the law firm as "fee earners"). I'm guessing that much of the reason why the term "fee earner" is used as it is at all is that there are people not qualified as "legal executives" (perhaps a vanishing profession, a product of early postwar experimentation?) who want some sort of nice-sounding title for themselves to distinguish them from the riff-raff below them.

Also, "fee earner" seems to be similarly used in Subsidiary BrE-Tradition cultures, like AusE.
Further research convinces me that the following is the truth of the matter: In BrE law firms, there is a ... them from the riff-raff below them. Also, "fee earner" seems to be similarly used in Subsidiary BrE-Tradition cultures, like AusE.

What's with all these new threads?
You are broadly right with one exception, that there is nothing undignified or status-demeaning in calling oneself a fee earner. It is a broad church.
In general though, it is a term likely to be used internally of the firm when laying down duties and responsibilities.
Casts about for a parallel ... All members of Parliament are MPs, but some are ministers, some are Cabinet Ministers, and the odd one is Prime Minister. But they are all proud (I wonder if) to be Members.
Paul
In bocca al Lupo!
Further research convinces me that the following is the truth ... to be similarly used in Subsidiary BrE-Tradition cultures, like AusE.

What's with all these new threads? You are broadly right with one exception, that there is nothing undignified or status-demeaning ... are Cabinet Ministers, and the odd one is Prime Minister. But they are all proud (I wonder if) to beMembers.

I'm now confused. Or perhaps I was all along, and have only now come to appreciate it. Next time I see my solicitor, I'll ask her. If I remember.

Mike.
Students: Are you brave enough to let our tutors analyse your pronunciation?
In BrE law firms, there is a middle rank of ... person, that person is, by definition, not (yet) a "feeearner".

Is this a new term for what used to be Articled Clerks viz. apprentice solicitors? As late as the 1960s most solicitors (non-courtroom lawyers) did not go to law school in England but qualified by five to seven years' practical instruction in a law firm as Articled Clerks.
Don Phillipson
Carlsbad Springs
(Ottawa, Canada)
I'm now confused. Or perhaps I was all along, and have only now come to appreciate it. Next time I see my solicitor, I'll ask her. If I remember.

Confusing the client is a lawyer's first duty. Then satisfying, billing, and getting paid.
What else are those years in law school spent for?
Paul
In bocca al Lupo!
billed earner". Is this a new term for what used to be Articled Clerks viz. apprentice solicitors? As late as ... law school in England but qualified by five to seven years' practical instruction in a law firm as Articled Clerks.

No, not really, sort of. If there is still an articled clerk in England, he or she would be a fee earner, though if very junior his time might well be written off the final bill.
Articled clerks were indentured apprentice solicitors, once upon a time. In those good old days, the clerk, or his parent, paid the solicitor for the privilege of being educated in the law. Somewhere in the archives in this house we have such an indenture.

Paul
In bocca al Lupo!
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billed earner". Is this a new term for what used to be Articled Clerks viz. apprentice solicitors? As late as ... law school in England but qualified by five to seven years' practical instruction in a law firm as Articled Clerks.

No, what were articled clerks are now "trainee solicitors". The legal executives used to be just "solicitor's clerks", of the non-articled variety. When I did it, in the mid-70s, you could still qualify without attending any sort of law course, provided that you were a university graduate (in any subject). In that case the period of articles, oddly enough, was only two years. Of course, that was in the days when you could assume that a gruaduate of a British university was adequately equipped with certain kinds of skills, but even then it seemed rather strange. They abolished this loophole not long after.

Don Aitken
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