The Law Society
There are more than 11,000 lawyers in New Zealand issued with practising certificates by the New Zealand Law Society. The Law Society is the statutory regulator of the legal profession.
Barristers and solicitors
Most lawyers in New Zealand practise as barristers and solicitors, but 14% of them practise as barristers alone. A barrister works mainly in the courts and tribunals, presenting evidence, making submissions on behalf of clients, representing parties in criminal trials, handling domestic disputes in the Family Court and dealing with civil claims. A solicitor handles general legal advisory work, commercial work and property transactions, and arranges finance. Solicitors draft wills, administer estates and advise on tax, forming companies, making contracts and raising or securing loans.
This fusion in the New Zealand legal profession stems from its earliest days in 1841, when conditions made departure from the English separation of barristers and solicitors inevitable. However, by the 2000s not all barristers were also solicitors, and these barristers must receive instructions from solicitors. Many barristers specialise in advocacy before the courts.
In 1896 Parliament passed an act that made it possible for women to enter the legal profession. Ethel Benjamin from Dunedin was the first woman to be admitted to the practice of law in New Zealand, in 1897. There were few women lawyers until the late 20th century. However, from the 1990s more than 50% of those entering the profession were women.
Queen’s Counsel and Senior Counsel
Queen’s Counsel (QC) and Senior Counsel are lawyers of particular distinction who are given higher rank. Sometimes they are called ‘silks’ because they wear silk gowns in court. They are selected by the attorney general and the chief justice, who must both agree on the appointment. The title Senior Counsel replaced QC in 2006, and the first appointments of Senior Counsel were made in 2008. In 2011 there was a bill before the Parliament for Senior Counsel to revert to the title of QC.
The usual route to becoming a lawyer in New Zealand is to obtain a law degree from a New Zealand university, and to undergo and pass a course in professional training. There are particular arrangements that allow New Zealand and Australian lawyers to practise in both countries, subject to certain conditions. Foreign lawyers can be admitted in New Zealand subject to satisfying the Council of Legal Education that they have sufficient knowledge of New Zealand law.