What’s the Difference between a Lawyer, Solicitor, Barrister and Attorney?
For most people, whenever they think of any of a lawyer, solicitor, barrister or attorney they automatically imagine two smartly dressed people with American accents battling it out in a courtroom. If you don’t, just watch an episode Suits, and you’ll see what I mean.
However, jokes aside, there are some important differences and in this article, we are going to cover them for you.
So first of all,
What is a Lawyer?
The word lawyer is a blanket term that generally describes the whole of the legal profession. But that doesn’t mean that anyone who is employed in the legal sector can call themselves a lawyer. To own such title, you must first obtain a legal qualification such as a Bachelor of Laws or Juris Doctor degree.
In Australia, the legal profession is divided into solicitors and barristers.
We conducted an online study based on Google searches in the following common law countries to find out which countries generalise legal professionals as lawyers the most:
United States 23,000 49%
India 3,200 7%
United Kingdom 2,800 6%
Canada 2,600 6%
Australia 2,500 5%
While there were over 23000 searches for lawyers in the United States once we took the individual countries population numbers into consideration, we found that Australia used the generic term ‘lawyers’ the most followed by Canada.
In the United States, the preferred term for a lawyer is Attorney, and in the United Kingdom, the most common search term was solicitors.
What is a Solicitor?
In Australia, a solicitor is a legal practitioner who holds a legally-defined qualification and admitted to a supreme court of one of the countries seven jurisdictions. They undertake the general aspects of giving legal advice and conducting legal proceedings mostly out of court.
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Solicitors can represent businesses and individuals work on the defending or prosecuting side. They can:
- Provide you with legal advice
- Focus on an area of speciality and work directly with you
- Manage complicated matters on your behalf and perform legal tasks
- Follow instructions from you to suit your needs and hoped outcomes
- Act in your best interest and negotiate on your behalf
Some of the most common areas of law they work in include:
Personal injury – general physical and/or psychological damages to an individual that are the fault/s of another responsible party.
Criminal – a system of laws concerned with punishment of individuals who commit crimes.
Wills – a legal document that clearly sets out your wishes for the distribution of your assets after your death.
Family law – an area of law that focuses on issues involving family relationships, such as adoption, divorce, and child custody.
Conveyancing – the branch of law concerned with the preparation of documents for the conveyance of property.
Corporate law – the body of law governing the rights, relations, and conduct of persons, companies, organisations and businesses.
Although Solicitors spend most of their time out of court, it is becoming more common, especially in some areas that they conduct more courtroom representation, which is traditionally carried out by barristers which is common practice in the United States where an Attorney at law generally takes on both roles.
What is a Barrister?
Barristers (often referred to as counsel) are independent specialist advocates and advisors in law who spend most of their time in court.
At one time barristers had sole rights to appear in the High Court, but this monopoly is now disappearing.
To become a barrister, a practising solicitor with the relevant experience must pass the Bar Readers Course before they can be invited to sign the Roll of Counsel.
This is what’s known as stepping up to the Bar.
Barristers in all jurisdictions throughout Australia, when required to do so, wear court dress (robes and wigs) similar to the attire worn in the United Kingdom.
Unlike solicitors working for at the same law firm, Barristers within a Chambers are independent. Because of this, it’s not uncommon that two Barristers from the same chambers can be working against each other on the same case. Barristers are also prohibited from picking and choosing their cases or who they would or wouldn’t like to represent by what is known as the Cab Rank Rule.
Barristers are usually instructed by solicitors rather than directly by the client to provide specialist legal advice and representation in Courts and Tribunals.
If a case goes to trial a barrister can provide:
- Specialised knowledge of their area of law
- Including knowledge of the rules of evidence and how they are applied
- Extensive understanding of litigation tactics
- Knowledge of the best way to prepare your case
- The ability to persuade the Court of the merits of the case
At one time barristers had sole rights to appear in the High Court but this monopoly is now disappearing as more and more Australian solicitors adopt the American Attorney approach
A small number of senior barristers receive ‘silk’ to become Queen’s Counsel/Senior Counsel as a sign of their exceptional ability. They are known as ‘silks’ because their gown includes a robe made of silk, while junior counsel wears robes of cotton. As Senior Councils they become barristers of seniority and excellence. They are normally appointed in the most serious or complex cases, with most Senior Judges practising as a Senior Council before their appointment.
What is an Attorney?
The term Attorney comes from the verb ‘to attorn’, which means to transfer one’s rights and obligations to another.
An Attorney or Attorney at Law is a term most commonly used in the United States and South Africa. However, in these two countries, the word ‘Attorney’ does not mean the same thing. In South Africa, they have Attorneys (solicitors) and Advocates (barristers) No dual practice is permitted. The key difference is that In the United States, there is no distinction between lawyers who represent individuals or businesses in or out of court. The United States also has no court dress requirements like there is in other common law countries.
In Australia, the word ‘attorney’ is rarely used unless it is to describe a ‘trademark attorney,’ who is a person qualified to act in matters surrounding trademark law and who can provide legal advice on such matters. Only those working in this area of intellectual property law adopt the official title of ‘attorney.’ They are represented by organisations that acknowledge this official title, such as the TradeMark Attorneys of Australia and The Institute of Patent. It should be acknowledged that even if a person holds the title of ‘attorney’ in Australia, they are either a solicitor or a barrister.
- The term ‘lawyer’ is a blanket phrase generally used to describe the whole of the legal profession
- If you hear someone talking about their lawyer, they usually mean their solicitor
- You approach a solicitor when you need general legal advice on a matter
- If you have a complex matter and require representation in court you will require a barrister
- An attorney is not a commonly used phrase in Australia and will generally only refer to a ‘trademark attorney’
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