The difference between barristers and solicitors

In August 2023, Legal Lines4 MinutesBy Danielle BestonSeptember 26, 2023

Everyone knows a lawyer is a professional that you go to when you need legal advice or if you need representation in court. But the difference between solicitors and barristers is often confusing. In New Zealand, when a lawyer qualifies, they are admitted to the bar as both a barrister and solicitor, but they need to practice as either one or the other. So, how do you know which one to use? This month, I want to discuss why work was traditionally divided between barristers and solicitors and whether this is still necessary.

Barristers are a type of specialist lawyer who are more skilled in oral advocacy and spend more of their time in the courtroom, depending on the case. They have expert knowledge of court procedures and how the court works, as well as extensive knowledge on the rules of evidence. They are to remain independent, with their first duty being to the court and then to the client. Barristers are mostly self-employed and belong to chambers, which is just another name for an office full of barristers.

Traditionally, solicitors would issue proceedings in court, file documents and pay court fees. Generally, they provide legal advice and do more transactional work such as buying and selling a house or business, trust formation and drafting contracts. They do more office-based work and, unlike barristers, normally work in law firms rather than on their own. Solicitors will instruct a barrister if their clients’ needs fall outside the scope of the solicitor’s expertise. Solicitors hold a client’s money in a trust account on behalf of a barrister and pay them once the work is complete.

Advantages of a split profession
When a solicitor instructs a barrister to assist with the court work, they come with an open mind and can have a more impartial view as they are not directly linked to the client. It is great to have a fresh set of eyes looking at the facts of the case, and they may be able to pick up on things the solicitor may have missed. Barristers develop a different skill set from solicitors, so they can often add significant value to a case. Unlike solicitors, most of a barrister’s career will be spent honing their written and oral advocacy skills.

Blurred boundaries
In the past, a barrister could only receive work if instructed by a solicitor, but now clients can come to barristers directly. In reality, many barristers practising in New Zealand will be contacted by a client based on their reputation. The barrister will then reach out to a solicitor to ask them to be the instructing solicitor on record and to collect the barrister’s fee. In these cases, the solicitor usually has limited involvement in how the case is run.

My personal experience
As a barrister who has specialised in traffic and transport law for the past 20 years, I prefer to be involved in a client’s case from start to finish. This is because I can provide a more personalised service and achieve better outcomes. I maintain a modest caseload to give each of my clients the attention they deserve. Since I carry out both the roles of a barrister and a solicitor, I believe that a split profession does not make much sense in the modern world.