Legal practice in New Zealand

Currently there are about 11,000 barristers and solicitors in New Zealand, serving a population of 4.3 million people.

There are three main groups of barristers and solicitors:

  • those who work in private practice, either on their own account (alone or in partnership with others in a firm) or as employed solicitors: 67% of total
  • those employed by a government department, corporate body, or professional association: 19% of total
  • those who practise as barristers sole: 14% of total.

The Lawyers and Conveyancers Act 2006

The practice of law in New Zealand is governed by the Lawyers and Conveyancers Act 2006 (LCA). Only lawyers (that is people holding current practising certificates as barristers or as barrister and solicitors) and incorporated law firms may call themselves 'lawyer', 'law practitioner', 'barrister', 'solicitor', 'counsel', and other terms - see s21 of the LCA.

In New Zealand all practitioners are admitted to the High Court of New Zealand as barristers and solicitors. Unlike some overseas jurisdictions, it is not possible to be admitted only as a barrister or only as a solicitor. Nor is it possible to be admitted on a limited basis - for example, on condition that the applicant will practise in only one area of law.

Once admitted, New Zealand lawyers have flexibility in their modes of practice. Most practitioners, including those who practise only as solicitors, hold certificates as 'barristers and solicitors'. This entitles them to act both as solicitors and to appear in the courts.

New Zealand barristers and solicitors are not permitted to practise in partnership with members of other professions or with lawyers holding only foreign qualifications. There are however, a number of New Zealand law firms that are independent entities and are also associated with law firms in other countries.

Practising as a barrister

Once admitted as a barrister and solicitor, it is possible under the LCA to obtain a practising certificate either as a barrister and solicitor or solely as a barrister. This allows for the existence of an independent bar as a separate group within the profession. This bar comprises practitioners who practise as 'barristers sole'. Barristers sole are not permitted to practise in partnerships but may employ other barristers sole. An incorporated law firm structure will also be open to barristers, as long as the barrister is the sole director and shareholder.

Barristers sole may, with a few exceptions, accept instructions only from a solicitor. For the particular rules applying to barristers sole see Chapter 14 of the Rules of Conduct and Client Care.

The rank of Senior Counsel is is now open to both barristers sole and barristers and solicitors.

Practising on own account

Extra requirements must be met before a practitioner can practice as a barrister and solicitor or barrister on his or her own account (ie: as a sole practitioner or a partner in a law firm, or a barrister sole). Applicants must have had at least three years' legal experience in New Zealand during the preceding five years before they set up on own account.  Other requirements include undergoing a short course and a test in trust accounting.

A lawyer in practice on his or her own account who is operating the firm's trust account must also undertake training and qualify as a Trust Account Supervisor.

Sole practitioners and sole directors in incorporated law firms must appoint an attorney.

Specialisation within the profession

There is currently no society-wide scheme of specialist accreditation. This is a representative function and is currently offered by the Property Law Section.

Complaints and discipline

The  rules of professional responsibility (known as the Rules of Conduct and Client Care) set out the processes for dealing with complaints about lawyers' conduct and about their charges.

© New Zealand Law Society 2008