It is common to think that “barrister” is simply another term for “lawyer”. The best way to distinguish the difference is to consider an analogy within the field of medicine: a lawyer/solicitor is to a general practitioner as a barrister is to a specialist. A barrister is indeed a common-law system lawyer, but one who specialises in litigation practices.
Barristers are different from solicitors in the sense that the latter do not spend their practice in courts, but more on the legal paperwork. Barristers and solicitors normally work together, where solicitors are the ones briefed by clients. The solicitor, in turn, consults with the barrister on how to handle the case.
Barristers are independent advisors and specialist advocates who have the experience and training to anticipate an array of possible outcomes for cases. They work with solicitors and their clients in choosing the right strategy to take given the circumstances of a case. They are likewise involved in the drafting of legal documents for court cases.
While it is the barrister’s main role to appear in court, he also handles dispute resolution, whether before the tribunals and courts or in non-judicial cases such as arbitrations, mediations and negotiations.
In general, barristers are not connected with law firms. Instead, they work independently and get their cases referred to them by solicitors. They normally share office spaces, referred to as “chambers, with other barristers.”
Since the major task of barristers is to be court advocates, they have intimate knowledge of the courts, and are adept at quickly determining the critical points of a case. Barristers are also sought after in handling opinion and advice work, and are valued for their role in resolving legal disputes. Their negotiation skills can help prevent exhausting and costly litigation.
However, for cases that go to trial, it becomes the role of barristers to handle the proceedings such as opening of the case, arguments of the points of law, presentation of evidence, examination and cross-examination of witnesses, re-examination of witnesses if needed, summation, addressing of the jury, etc.
While some states allow solicitors to become barristers straight out of law school, other jurisdictions require a number of years as a solicitor before becoming a barrister. This is ideal, since it is advisable to first gain some reputation as a solicitor before becoming a barrister, otherwise success is unlikely. The amount of work a barrister gets is proportional to his/her professional reputation. To learn the requirements and processes that you need to meet to be a barrister, it is advisable to check your local Bar Association, as it differs depending on the territory.