What is a lawyer?
A person who has studied law, completed practical legal training, and been 'admitted' to the Supreme Court of their state or territory can call themselves 'a lawyer'.
If a lawyer does legal work they must have a current practising certificate and be insured. Most lawyers have their practising certificate on display in their office. If you cannot see it and you are not sure if your lawyer is qualified, you can ask them to show you their practising certificate.
Lawyers can be solicitors or barristers. Depending on your legal problem, you may need a solicitor or barrister, or both.
Solicitors and barristers
Solicitors only have to be 'admitted' to the Supreme Court of the state or territory they want to practise in.
If you have a legal issue or problem, you can hire a solicitor to do work for you. This is called 'retaining' or 'instructing' a solicitor. You become the solicitor's client and the solicitor takes responsibility for the day to day management of your case.
A solicitor can:
- research the law
- give you legal advice
- draft letters, emails, and faxes
- make telephone calls on your behalf
- prepare documents, for example court forms, wills and contracts
- negotiate with the other person or people involved
- represent you in courts and tribunals.
Solicitors can work in different arrangements:
- a private law firm, which can be any size from very large (with hundreds of lawyers) or very small (with a few lawyers)
- a sole practice, where the lawyer works alone for themselves
- the government or the community sector, for example in Community Legal Centres or Legal Aid NSW.
Barristers are lawyers that have been 'admitted' to the Supreme Court of the state they want to practise in. In NSW, they must also have a practising certificate from the NSW Bar Association.
Barristers are experts in representing people in court and can provide a specialist opinion on a particular area of the law. They often work alone or with other barristers in offices called 'chambers'.
If you have a complicated legal problem and you are going to court, your solicitor will tell you if they think you need a barrister. The solicitor will usually find the barrister and instruct them. The solicitor will then work with the barrister to represent you. If you do not have a solicitor, you may be able to hire a barrister yourself.
When you have a solicitor and barrister, a solicitor will do the work of preparing your case for court and the barrister will speak in court at the hearing. This will include arguing your case in court, presenting evidence, deciding which witnesses to use, what questions to ask them and cross-examining the other side's witnesses.
For more information, see
When do you need a lawyer?
Areas of law
Lawyers can work in various areas of the law, work in one area of law or they can specialise in a particular type of law.
Lawyers who work in various areas of the law are often referred to as 'generalist lawyers'. They either work for themselves as a sole practitioner or in a generalist law firm.
Lawyers who specialise in one area are often referred to as 'specialist lawyers'. For example a specialist lawyer might work in:
- property law
- criminal law
- family law
- personal injury law.
Specialist lawyers may work for a specialised practice (a firm that advises in only one area of the law) or they might be a specialist lawyer working for a general practice (a firm that has a number of lawyers with expertise in different areas of the law).
Specialist lawyers who have a number of years experience in a particular area of law and who have completed the Law Society of NSW Specialist Accreditation Scheme can call themselves 'Accredited Specialists'.
Whether you use a specialist lawyer or a generalist lawyer is up to you and may depend on your legal issue.
For more information on how to find a lawyer, see
Finding a lawyer.
Case study - Sarah and her criminal law matter
Sarah has been charged with a criminal offence and wants to get some legal advice.
Sarah visited her local law firm and was able to see a solicitor, Jenny, who specialises in criminal law matters. After their first meeting, Jenny discovered that Sarah's matter is quite complicated. There have already been a number of court appearances and the allegations against her are serious.
Jenny knows some barristers that have experience in Sarah's type of case and recommends that Sarah engage a barrister to help with the upcoming hearing.