Many law firms confusingly refer to themselves as “Barristers and Solicitors.” You have heard of both, but what is the difference, and which type of lawyer should you contact for legal advice?
You may see both solicitors and barrister attend Court, or hear both mentioned during news coverage of a legal case. Both are referred to as “lawyers”, and in most cases both have similar backgrounds and legal education. Whilst some crossover exists between the roles, there are important differences.
The confusion is only added to by the fact that the American courtroom drama shows have lawyers referred to as “attorneys”. In Australia, an attorney typically means a person appointed under a Power of Attorney (who may not be a lawyer at all).
Invariably, a client with a legal issue first consults a solicitor, and will engage them to attend to legal work or provide advice to the client. A solicitor will enter into a contract with their client, which outlines the terms of engagement. A solicitor may assist with discrete tasks such as preparing a Will or a Lease document, advising clients on their legal rights and obligations, or acting for them in litigation.
A solicitor is often either a sole practitioner or part of a law firm (like Hume Taylor & Co). They work directly with clients. Whilst solicitors can and do attend and advocate in Court, a solicitor spends much of their time working from an office. Solicitors may specialise in a certain area of law, such as Personal Injury, Wills and Estates, or Family Law.
Barristers are lawyers who specialise in litigation, and provide specialist, strategic advice for matters which may proceed to trial, and attend court on behalf of solicitors and clients. Barristers are also skilled in dispute resolution, and their advice can assist solicitors to settle a matter before it proceeds to court, saving clients from the stress and cost of a trial. Some barristers are highly specialised in a niche area, and assist solicitors with advice on complex issues.
Barristers typically work solely and are not part of a firm, but often barristers join together in offices called “Chambers” where they share facilities.
An important difference is that a barrister is only engaged by a solicitor, not by the client directly. The barrister takes instructions from the solicitor, and many barristers will not meet with a client without their solicitor present.
A solicitor is liable for the costs of a barrister, and the barrister will invoice to the solicitor. Most solicitors’ terms of engagement permit them to pass that cost to their client, or to require money from the client in advance to cover the anticipated costs of the barrister.
During litigation, a barrister will commonly provide strategic advice, edit and settle Court documents, attend and advocate at Court hearings, and provide a level of expert oversight. The solicitor briefing the barrister will be working with the client, drafting documents, interviewing witnesses, undertaking research and many other ‘behind the scenes’ tasks. The client will rarely, if ever, be approached by the barrister directly, whereas they will be in regular contact with their solicitor and the solicitor’s firm.
Having said this, solicitors can do every task that a barrister can, and many senior solicitors will do so. If the involvement of a barrister is not required, your solicitor at Hume Taylor & Co will handle all aspects of your matter.
A helpful analogy is to think of your solicitor like a General Practitioner doctor – if you have a medical issue, you usually visit a GP first. The GP is qualified to treat and diagnose a range of medical issues. However, if a complex medical issue emerges, or surgery is required, a GP will refer their patient to a surgeon or another medical specialist, such as a cardiologist or an obstetrician. Think of barristers as similar to those specialists – they have a defined but crucial role for complex and specialised matters. It is a matter of assembling the best team for the patient/client, to obtain the most favourable outcome.
All of the lawyers at Hume Taylor & Co are solicitors. When a barrister is required, with the client’s express authority and approval, we engage a barrister from an external Chambers. At Hume Taylor & Co, we have excellent working relationships with some of Adelaide’s best barristers. If we believe a barrister is required for your matter, our solicitors will explain to you the reason, benefit and cost of obtaining a barrister, and ensure that you have the best legal team assembled to assist you.
This blog post was written by partner Sam Partridge.