Practicing Law in Australia

I practice in in the suburbs of Sydney, Australia’s largest city with a population of about 4m. Sydney is located in New South Wales, a state with a population of about 7.2m and—more depressingly—with over 25,000 lawyers. Approximately 24,000 solicitors are essentially office-based, while many appear regularly in courts at all levels, and about 2,000 barristers who are specialist advocates and who practice mainly in the Sydney central business district. Barristers do not normally take instructions directly from lay clients but rather receive referrals from solicitors in a specialist area of law. In this way the the system is similar to that in England.

On the above figures it seems that the ratio of lawyers to the general population in NSW is about 1 in 300 similar to that in the USA.

While the work is essentially similar to what lawyers do in the USA, since both countries have common law based systems, there are some marked differences.


In Australia it is illegal to charge a percentage of damages for a successful damages claim, to do so would probably result in a lawyer being disbarrred. Lawyers normally charge hourly rates of between $250- $500 per hour depending on the type of work and the experience of the lawyer.

Unlike the USA a successful plaintiff can normally recover the bulk, usually about 2/3 to 3/4 of their costs from the defendant . This is done after an assessment of the costs is made by an independent cost assessor. The fact that a defendant is aware that they will be liable for costs in additions to any amount claimed by the plaintiff is a great incentive for a defendant to be realistic and to settle a matter relatively early. The courts at all levels are now proactive in case management and most cases in the Supreme Court, the highest court of first instance, will be heard within 12 months of commencement. Lawyers can be held personally liable for wasted costs if they are inadequately prepared, mediation is encouraged at all levels and is compulsory in some jurisdictions.

Unlike the USA lawyers can incorporate and many smaller firms have done so though the larger city firms still tend to operate as partnerships. There are now at least two law firms listed on the stock exchange and one of these, Slater & Gordon, is actively purchasing smaller firms all over the country. Slater & Gordon is unusual though in that it is essentially a plaintiff personal injury firm as well as class action lawyers and as such deep pockets are needed to fund this type of litigation and the business model they adopt is well suited to this type of litigation.

My practice is essentially property and estate based. I act in domestic conveyancing which is mainly handled by lawyers and some licensed conveyancers. The fees charged for the purchase of a house will normally be between $1,000 and $2,000. For a typical estate in the area I live the costs would be between $5000-$8,000. The system of land title in Australia is a statute based one with the government guaranteeing title and despite some attempts from US based companies title insurance has not had any impact on the market. Most suburban and country based lawyers would probably depend on conveyancing for about half of ther income though it will depend of course on the type of practice. Fortunately Australia seems to have escaped the excesses of the GFC and while property values have stabilised or declined slightly there has not been the disasters which seem to have effected some areas of the US. and properties, particularly in Sydney, are still selling.

Other differences seem to be that it is not possible here to open a practice straight out of law school which judging tby the number of articles about this issue in Lawyerist seems to be possible in the USA. In NSW at least you need to be employed for at least 2 years and then undertake a short practice management course before it is possible to open your own law firm.

The economics of running a practice seem to be similar to that in the US . While rent varies according to the location equpment prices seem to about 50% higher here and the wage for a a reasonable paralegal would be about $30-$40 per hour. Historically lawyers in Australia have been active in introducing technology, probably because of the relatively high wage component of practice overheads and most practices, certainly all the larger and most of the smaller firms and sole practices would have a computerised file management sytem of some type, usually locally produced software such as LEAP, a few firms have Amicus though this would be unusual. Cloud based sytems are becoming more common and I recently introduced one to my practice.

As can be seen lawyers all over the world, or at least in common law countries have similar methods of operation and similar problems.

Terence McCowan is a property, wills, & estates lawyer (“solicitor”) practicing in Australia.

(photo: Shutterstock)

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  • JR V.

    How does a U.S. JD practice law in Australia? I was on the Law Council of Australia web page and it seems like one can simply apply to the Territory they wish to practice in?

  • Oliver M

    Hi,

    Yes, in Australia you should contact the Law Society for the State or Territory you intend to do business in. Here is a link to the site for the Queensland Law Society – the State I practise in –

    http://www.qls.com.au/For_the_profession/Your_legal_career/Become_a_solicitor