Why so many legal terms for lawyers?
All of us have come to recognise different words referring to lawyers such as barrister, solicitor, notary, advocate, counsel and attorney. Are they the same? What really is the difference? How do you know which type of lawyer you need?
Each of them defined
Let’s kick off with a brief definition:
Lawyer – An umbrella term generally used to describe someone who is trained in the law; a licensed legal practitioner.
Barrister – A type of lawyer in common law who primarily specialises in litigation, representing clients in open court. Used in countries like the United Kingdom (UK), barristers are also known as trial attorneys in the United States (US) and advocates in Singapore.
The origin of the word barrister is related to the wooden bar in a courtroom which separates the spectators and observers from the lawyers, judge, jury (where applicable), court personnel and other parties involved in the case. Being ‘called to the bar’ has similar roots which deems that a person is qualified to argue a case in court on behalf of another party.
Advocate – Another name for barrister in countries like Singapore and the UK, but in countries like the US, the word advocate is not particularly used in law and is interchangeable with attorney, counsel or lawyer.
Solicitor – Lawyers who are qualified to deal with transactional matters like conveyancing, wills, legal advisory work and more. They may instruct barristers to represent their clients in court, but may also do so themselves in some countries. This word is consistent for the UK and Singapore but is not much used in the US.
Counsel – A general term that can mean many things in different countries and different contexts. In its broadest definition, it can refer to the general body of legal advisors who may or may not be practicing lawyers and can encompass all the types of lawyers mentioned above.
Legal counsels can also refer to in-house legal counsels hired by corporates who have an in-house legal team. These are typically, but not confined to, ex-lawyers. Legal counsels do not necessarily need to be certified to practice – for example in Singapore, practicing lawyers in local law firms are required to have a practicing certificate that is issued and governed by the Law Society of Singapore according to the Legal Profession Act. However, the role of an in-house legal counsel does not demand the same requirement.
Notary Public – A notary public is a lawyer who is authorised to perform certain legal formalities such as drawing up and certifying contracts, deeds and other legal documents. In Singapore, a notary public must be a qualified lawyer with a practicing certificate. Notaries public in Singapore can notarise documents by witnessing and authenticating documents used in other countries – this is to give a level of confidence to the authenticity of the documents and to prevent fraud.
Queen’s Counsel – A Queen’s Counsel is a title bestowed by the Crown on an eminent lawyer in the UK (typically a barrister). It is a prestigious appointment that is awarded to applicants by merit, and tends to be awarded to lawyers with at least 15 years of experience. Members are also known as silks because of the silk gowns they are entitled to wear.
Senior Counsel – The Singapore equivalent to Queen’s Counsel. Approximately 1% of Singapore’s 5,000 practicing lawyers are appointed Senior Counsel (about 80 have been appointed to date in Singapore). You can read a more in-depth and intriguing article on Senior Counsel here.
|Type of lawyer
|United Kingdom (UK)
|United States (US)
|Lawyer who can argue in open court
|Lawyer who handles a range of legal work outside court
|Separation between barrister and solicitor
Is it really just different names for the same type of lawyer?
The answer to that is yes and no.
Each country has different legal systems and lexicon. Even countries like Singapore and the UK, while having similar legal systems since Singapore’s legal system was derived off the UK’s common law, have differences.
The UK separates the work that a barrister and solicitor does. Barristers can appear in open court to plead the case on behalf of their clients because they are granted the rights of audience. However, they typically deal with clients through a solicitor; it is unlikely that they deal with clients directly.
Solicitors, on the other hand, handle other types of legal work outside court like drawing up wills, conveyancing, drafting contracts and other general advisory work. It is unlikely that they appear in open court to argue cases on behalf of clients, although certain solicitors, known as solicitors-advocates, can.
No clear distinction between barrister/ advocate and solicitors in Singapore
Unlike the legal profession in the UK, Singapore practices a fused legal profession. Hence, lawyers in Singapore are known as an ‘Advocate and Solicitor’ when they get called to the bar, obtaining rights to appear before all courts of justice in Singapore.
This is similar to the US legal system as well. A lawyer may act as both a solicitor and advocate, although most lawyers choose to specialise in either litigation, conveyancing or corporate law.
What does that mean for someone living in Singapore?
Since lawyers can be both advocates and solicitors in Singapore, you do not really need to know the difference. Most lawyers will be able to handle legal matters in and outside of court. Many law firms will append “Advocates and Solicitors” after their firm name which basically indicates they can handle most kinds of legal work.
You just have to be aware that some terms, like attorney or barrister, are not used as much here.
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This article does not constitute legal advice or a legal opinion on any matter discussed and, accordingly, it should not be relied upon. It should not be regarded as a comprehensive statement of the law and practice in this area. If you require any advice or information, please speak to practicing lawyer in your jurisdiction. No individual who is a member, partner, shareholder or consultant of, in or to any constituent part of Interstellar Group Pte. Ltd. accepts or assumes responsibility, or has any liability, to any person in respect of this article.
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