"Lawyer" is the very general term covering somebody who has been trained in the law and is qualified to give legal advice. In Australia you need to "hold a practising certificate" (be licensed) to work as a lawyer. Lawyers must comply with stringent professional standards, or they lose their licence (they are "struck off").
A solicitor works directly with clients. They see clients in their offices and advise them. They prepare contracts, Wills, probate documents and attend to other paperwork. If the client is involved in a dispute then the solicitor will investigate the facts of the matter, write letters to other parties and prepare paperwork for the Courts.
If a barrister is required, then the solicitor will recommend engaging a qualified and experienced barrister appropriate to the budget of the client and the nature of their case.
The term "Attorney" is used more on American TV than it is in Australia. When we talk about a lawyer being an Attorney in Australia, we are referring to them as a solicitor rather than as a barrister.
Using the word "Attorney" in this way should not be confused with a "Power of Attorney", which is something quite different and is discussed on our Wills page.
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In New South Wales all lawyers have the same university training, whether they intend to work as a barrister or solicitor. They then have to choose whether they work as a barrister or solicitor. Those who choose to work solely as barristers work in Chambers rather than in law firms. Like a Medical Specialist, the public do not come to them as their clients. Usually the public first see a solicitor who (like a medical GP) will make the arrangements for a barrister if this is required. Any correspondence is between the barrister and the solicitor. The barrister requires the solicitor to pay his bills promptly, which is why solicitors often require money from their clients "up front" into their Trust Account before they engage a barrister.
Some barristers may be willing to deal directly with the public and you can contact their offices (which are usually called "chambers") to ask if this is possible.
There is no difference in the complexity of the practice of law by barristers and solicitors. It is a matter of specialisation. Barristers specialise in difficult litigation and in advising in specialist fields of law. Solicitors may practice very generally, or they may specialise in areas such as criminal law, bankruptcy, probate or personal injury law.
There are many factors involved when a solicitor chooses a barrister.
These include the solicitor's assessment of the complexity of the case, the specialisation of the barrister, the personalities of the client and barrister, budget, client preferences and whether a junior or senior barrister is required. (Technically a "senior" barrister is a barrister with the high status of a Senior Counsel or Queens Counsel).
When solicitors rate ordinary barristers according to their experience and skill levels they often talk of "seniority". (It has nothing to do with their age!).
The solicitor and barrister will be working as a team and so the solicitor will also consider the working relationship they may already have with particular barristers.
If your solicitor engages the barrister then the professional standards of a barrister require that they only deal with solicitors and not with the public.
You can put your barrister in an embarrassing situation with these rules if you try and contact them directly. (This assumes that you have not engaged them directly).
Also, barristers are not set up to deal with clients in this way. They are often in and out of Court, in meetings or deep in research and deep in thought.