The term “solicitor” is mainly used in England to describe attorneys who handle mostly office work, as opposed to going to court to litigate cases. In the U.S., the term is typically used to refer to a chief law enforcement officer, but it is generally not used to describe attorneys. Another important position that employs the solicitor term is the U.S. Solicitor General. This is an official of the Justice Department, who represents the government in cases that are presented to the Supreme Court. To explore this concept, consider the following solicitor definition.

Definition of Solicitor


  1. (U.S.) An officer in charge of the legal business for a town or city.
  2. (U.S.) A person seeking donations, or attempting to sell something
  3. (U.K.) An attorney who handles office work, rather than litigating matters in court.


1375-1425       Middle French  soliciteur

What is a Solicitor

The term “solicitor” did once exist in the U.S., but it was used to refer to attorneys who argued cases in courts of equity, rather than in courts of law. Courts of equity are courts that apply principles of equity or fairness, as opposed to the law, to the cases that are brought before them. Once equity courts had been absorbed by the courts of law, by the end of the 19th century, the solicitor position became obsolete.

Today, the term “solicitor” is instead used to refer to lawyers who represent the government. As an example, a solicitor is a town, city, or county attorney. Solicitors also exist at the federal level, with solicitors acting on behalf of particular departments, like the Department of Labor and the Patent & Trademark Office.

The Solicitor General of the United States is an example of a solicitor who is appointed to represent the federal government in matters that are heard by the Supreme Court. All litigation related to the government is run through the Office of the Solicitor General. About two-thirds of cases that the Supreme Court agrees to hear each year involve the United States government.

Criminal Solicitation

Criminal solicitation is the act of requesting or demanding that someone participate in a criminal activity. Typically, the term “criminal solicitation” is used to describe the act of propositioning someone, or luring someone, to engage in prostitution. This means that a person must request that another person participate in sexual activities with the intent of one of the parties being compensated.

State laws vary in their definitions of criminal solicitation, but in order to be guilty of such an offense, the person must have:

  • requested that someone else engage in criminal behavior; and
  • had the intention to engage in criminal behavior with that person.

What is important to remember about the solicitation of prostitution is that the actual prostitution, or engaging in a sexual act, does not need to happen in order for it to be a crime. The solicitation itself is the crime, even if the request is not accepted. For example, a solicitor of prostitution (whether the prostitute, or the “john”) can be convicted of soliciting an undercover police officer, despite the fact that the act of prostitution never took place.

Because criminal solicitation can be done for a variety of crimes, and depending on the state in which the solicitation occurred, the punishment can vary widely. For instance, someone who is found guilty of soliciting murder will be punished more severely than someone who solicits prostitution. Even the punishment for the solicitation of prostitution can vary. Someone with prior convictions is more likely to receive jail time, fines, and community service, than a first-time offender.

Some states even require that those convicted of soliciting prostitution be HIV tested, and then enrolled in HIV classes. In those states, engaging in prostitution while HIV-positive is considered a more serious crime – often a felony.

Letter of Solicitation

The terms “solicit” and “solicitation” can also be interpreted to mean the act of asking for something from someone else. A letter of solicitation is a letter that is in line with this interpretation, as it is used to try and persuade someone to act in a specific manner. Usually, a letter of solicitation is used to sell something, request a donation, or request someone’s presence at an event.

Typically, letters of solicitation are written in persuasive language, so as to show the reader how he might benefit by complying the request, as well as instructions on what he needs to do in order to comply. For instance, if the author of the letter is selling something, he can inform the reader how that item will benefit his life, as well as how to buy the item, in the letter. If the letter is requesting a donation, instructions can be included as to where the reader should send his gift.

No Solicitor Sign

Today in the U.S., the more commonly recognized usage of the term “solicitor” refers to a salesperson, or to someone soliciting donations or votes. Those who are not interested in what such people have to offer, or who simply don’t want to be bothered by people knocking on their doors, will often post “No Solicitor” signs on their homes or places of business.

The dictionary definition of “solicitor” is someone who approaches another person with a request. Therefore, when a home or business posts a “No Solicitor” sign on the property, solicitors are effectively denied from entering the property to make their requests. These requests can range from selling a product to asking for a donation.

However, just because a “No Solicitor” sign is posted, it does not mean that a business will not entertain listening to what the solicitor has to say. The business is simply requesting that the solicitor not show up unannounced. The solicitor may need to make an appointment in advance with the person responsible for making the related decision.

“No Solicitor” signs may seem rude at first, but for businesses in particular, if they do not post such signs, they can become overwhelmed with requests for donations or business, as well as a massive drain on their time. Complaints that solicitors are ignoring No Solicitor signs generally fall under trespassing laws.

Some solicitors opt to ignore a “No Solicitor” sign, determined to convince the business or homeowner to listen to their pitches. However, some jurisdictions have laws that regulate solicitation, protecting solicitors’ targets. Some jurisdictions require that the solicitor have a vendor or solicitor permit. Just because a solicitor has a permit, however, does not allow him to solicit at a home or business that posts a “No Solicitor” sign. Those who choose to solicit anyway, ignoring the signs, are risking potential prosecution under the law.

Solicitor Example Involving Religious Rights

In 1940, Newton Cantwell and his two sons, Jesse and Russell, were preaching their Jehovah’s Witness faith to a neighborhood in New Haven, Connecticut, which was mostly Roman Catholic. In addition to the books and pamphlets that the Cantwells – acting as solicitors – were taking with them door to door, they also had with them a portable phonograph with records. Each record contained a description of the books they had with them. One such book was entitled “Enemies,” which attacked organized religion and the Roman Catholic Church.

Jesse approached two men who were walking down the street, and asked them to listen to one of the records. The men listened, but became outraged by what they heard, and, while they refrained from physically assaulting the Cantwells, they reported the incident to the police. The Cantwells were subsequently arrested on charges of breaching the peace and violating the Connecticut statute that required solicitors to obtain a license from the Secretary of the Public Welfare Council before soliciting the public.

The Cantwells’ defense was that they didn’t obtain a license because they did not believe the government was entitled to determine whether or not Jehovah’s Witnesses were a recognized religion. They also argued that the Connecticut statute denied them their rights under the Fourteenth Amendment, as well as their rights to freedom of speech and religious expression under the First Amendment.

All three Cantwells were convicted in a criminal trial on both charges. They, of course, appealed, and the appellate court affirmed the conviction of violating the statute for all three Cantwells. However, while Jesse’s conviction of breaching the peace was affirmed, the convictions of Newton and Russell for the same charge were reversed and a new trial ordered.

The Cantwells then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. In a unanimous decision, the Court decided that both the solicitation statute and the breach of the peace ordinance infringed upon the Cantwells’ First Amendment rights. The Court held that, while general restrictions on solicitation were fine, restrictions that were based on religion were not. Because the statute gave local officials the authority to decide which causes were religious and which were not, the Court held that the statute violated the state’s citizens’ First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

The Court also held that, while the state could be legitimately vested in maintaining public order, this was no excuse for it to suppress the “free communication of views.” While the Cantwells’ message may have been offensive to the majority of residents in the neighborhood wherein they were preaching, the message they were spreading did not threaten bodily harm, and was therefore protected as religious speech under the First Amendment.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Appellate Court – A court that reviews appeals from cases that have already been heard and decided by a lower court.
  • Equity – A particular set of remedies and associated procedures that are applied to cases, as opposed to legal statutes. Intent – Someone’s intention or purpose for doing something.
  • Statute (Statutory Law) – A written law that is passed by a legislative institution.