Legal Jargon 1.01: I am a lawyer, and I am a Barrister, but I am not a Solicitor…Silk, QCs, SCs, Advocates, Attorneys et al…Today’s daily riddle.

The Brief

I am a lawyer, and I am a Barrister, but I am not a Solicitor, but I once was, and nor am I a Silk but my learned leader is a QC although in NSW we only appoint SCs. We have chambers, but it is not “the firm”. This brief needs some unpacking…

Barrister | Solicitor | Lawyer | Australian Legal Practitioner

In New South Wales, the terms “Barrister” and “Solicitor” are sometimes misunderstood.  They are different. And yet, they are very similar in many respects.  Some Barristers were formerly Solicitors and some were not. Some Barristers become Solicitors after being a Barrister.

What about “Attorney” or “Advocate”?

The terms “Attorney” or an “Advocate” are red herrings. They apply for lawyers in the United States or on TV. The terms carry no formal meaning within the legal profession in New South Wales.

Similarities and Distinctions in the Services Provided by Barristers and Solicitors

There are many similarities in the work of a Barrister and a Solicitor. At a high level, both provide legal advice.

Barristers are specialised advocates. The NSW Bar Rules define the Work of a Barrister as consisting of “Appearing as an Advocate” and “Giving Legal Advice” and other related work.  Barristers mostly represent clients in a courtroom.  But, all Solicitors are also entitled to appear in Court. As a practical reality, however, many Solicitors do not have the need to appear in Court because they may not work in litigation (for example, they may work in Corporate Law). But, some Solicitors are also specialised advocates, for example, in the areas of family law, and many do extra rigorous specialist accreditation programs run by the Law Society of NSW.

Barristers are not permitted to carry out certain work (Bar Rule 17). For example, a Barrister is not permitted to conduct a conveyance or administer a trust estate. Whereas, a Solicitor is not restricted to carry out these roles.

Differences in Business Structure

There are also differences in the way that a Barrister and Solicitor must practice.

For example, a Solicitor can choose to be a sole practitioner but equally, can choose to be within a partnership or an incorporated practice. There are many potentially business models available. But, a Barrister must only be a sole practitioner and not work within any other business structure.

A Barrister may be a member of “chambers”, and most are, but, they are independent professionals who share resources such as administrative support as well as working in a collegiate atmosphere.   Chambers are not a “firm” or a “partnership”. This is one of the biggest misconceptions in the market.

Some differences between Barristers and Solicitors are mere myths

It is a total myth that either a Solicitor or a Barrister has “superior” skills to the other. Both are highly trained legal professionals. They both have the same underlying university training.

Shakespeare famously said, “Comparisons are Odious”.  And so that rings true here.

In the case of a Barrister and Solicitor, it is like comparing a carpenter to an electrician. Both might be engaged by a client to build a house, but both have different (although often overlapping) skills. It is not a matter of superior skills. It is a matter of different skills.

An effective retort to any misconceptions of “superiority” is the plain fact that Judges are elevated directly from the ranks of Barristers and Solicitors.  There are many extremely fine examples of Superior Court Judges who were elevated directly from law firms.

Why would you need a Barrister and a Solicitor? 

The Devil’s Advocate (no, not a term that carries a formal meaning within the legal profession in New South Wales!) may ask, “if the roles are so similar, why does someone need a Barrister and a Solicitor?”.

Good question.

Typically, a legal team requires a Solicitor and a Barrister, or, in a bigger team, a couple or few of each. The lawyers comprising the legal team (ie the Solicitors and the Barristers) work together in a collaborative fashion. Or, at least they should do so. The Solicitors have the direct client contact but the legal work is a collaborative effort by all members of the legal team.

In my experience as a Barrister, some of the best legal insights I have had have come from junior Solicitors who are exceptional with legal research and have a great work ethic while senior Solicitors draw upon a wealth of experience to assist making critical judgment calls and have excellent client relationship skills.

Other Australian Jurisdictions

To add further confusion to the mix, other States and Territories have their own rules.  In some States, a “lawyer” is admitted as both “Solicitors” and “Barristers”. For example, it is a “blended legal profession” in the Northern Territory, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia.

More information about the jurisdictional requirements is available from the Australian Bar Association.

Other terms: Silk / Queens Counsel / Senior Counsel

These terms refer to the “inner bar”. You might ask, what is the “inner bar”?  The term has its historical meanings. But nowadays, it refers to Barristers of seniority and eminence who are selected and appointed to be those designated as “senior counsel” by the President of the NSW Bar Association after consultation with members of the legal profession including the judiciary. These Barristers comprise about 14% of all Barristers.

Senior Counsel appear as advocates at trial or on appeal and advise in particularly complex or difficult cases.

In New South Wales, they are known as “Senior Counsel” with the post nominals “S.C.”.

Before 1993, such Barristers were known as “Queens Counsel” or “QC”. They were appointed by the Governor of the State upon advice from the Attorney General, usually in consultation with the President of the NSW Bar Association.

The term “Silk” comes from the silk gowns that are awarded to a QC, which is known informally as “taking silk.” Still today, the members of the inner Bar wear silk robes which are tailored in a different fashion from other Barristers’ robes.

There is no difference in status between a Queen’s Counsel and a Senior Counsel.

In recent years, there has been a move in some States of Australia to revert to the old title of Queen’s Counsel. For example, in 2013, Queensland restored the rank of Queens’s Counsel, as did Victoria in 2014.

For Barristers who were appointed members of the inner bar prior to 1993, they are referred to as “Queens Counsel” or “QC”.

Accordingly, in New South Wales, the “inner bar” comprises persons who are “Senior Counsel” including those who are still referred to as “QC” while those appointed after 1993 are known as “SC”.

A generic slang term for a QC or an SC is a “Silk.”


There ends 1.01.


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