In a nutshell:
Forget about ‘Attorney’ – this is what they call Lawyers in America.
In Australia, we refer to legal professionals as Lawyers, or Barristers or Solicitors.
The term “Lawyer” covers both Solicitors and Barristers. In some states, a lawyer may practise as both a solicitor and barrister, while in others, like Queensland, you must choose to be either a Solicitor or Barrister.
If you have a legal problem you see a solicitor first who will work directly with you. if you have a court case, your solicitor will prepare your case and if necessary, provide a ‘brief’ which includes instructions to a Barrister and includes an index list of papers that are relevant to your case, and which enables the Barrister to provide a written opinion (called ‘Counsel’s Advice) on your case, and/or enables the Barrister to represent you in court and talk directly to the Judge on your behalf.
Whilst Solicitors have a right to appear in any Court, they usually represent clients in the Magistrates Court, preferring to brief barristers in the higher courts.
A qualifying law student can choose to work solely as a Barrister or Solicitor.
Think of a Barrister like a Specialist. In Medicine, you see the GP first and if you need to see a Specialist, you are referred by the GP. This is much the same in the legal profession – you see a Solicitor first, and if a Barrister is needed to advise on the circumstances of your case, or to represent you in Court, your Solicitor will prepare a ‘brief’ or list of documents, with written instructions and engage a suitable Barrister who will receive the brief and act according to the instructions in the brief.
For example, the brief may be:
- A brief to advise on liability (i.e. whether or not you or the other party is liable)
- A brief to advise on Quantum (i.e. the amount of money you might expect to receive from your claim)
- A brief to advise on evidence (i.e. whether the available evidence supports your case, and what evidence might be required to support your case)
- A brief to appear (i.e. at a hearing or trial)
- You do not see the barrister directly, but may have appointments with them in the company of your solicitor, who will work with the barrister work as a team.
Note: Technically, your solicitor engages the barrister and consequently is personally liable to pay the barrister’s fees and this is the reason why your solicitor may ask for money from you ’ up front’ to cover him or herself.
Barristers usually work in ‘Chambers’ which is a fancy name for a set of rooms, where a group of barristers work independently but may share rental and support staff costs.
It is most unusual for a barrister to work inside a legal firm, and this usually only happens in the largest of law firms- where they are known as ‘in-house Counsel’.
Queens Counsel (QC) or Senior Counsel (SC)
These terms are for the most experienced of Barristers.
A ‘silk’ is a generic or slang term for either a Queens Counsel (i.e. QC) or a Senior Counsel (i.e. SC) and are the more experienced barristers who have been promoted to this position.
Is there some reason why I can’t ring a barrister direct?
Barristers are bound by a set of professional standards which dictate that they are not to deal direct with the public, but only through solicitors. Even without such standards, it is simply not practical as they are always in or out of court, and whilst not in court – are researching and spending their time contemplating the often complex issues involved in a variety of cases.