The British and Irish legal professions (as well as, to a lesser degree Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand and Canada) have a division between lawyers with rights of audience before courts and lawyers who traditionally prepared cases but lacked rights of audience (i.e., solicitors.) Barristers were therefore specialist litigators and solicitors were general practice lawyers who instructed barristers. The distinction was maintained by various rules, including for example that barristers may not work for clients directly, but instead must be “instructed” (i.e., subcontracted) by a solicitor.
The barrister/solicitor distinction is increasingly criticised as archaic, especially with respect to complex litigation and is slowly breaking down, with solicitors increasingly have the right to argue before the courts, either automatically or upon qualification (known in England and Wales as higher rights of audience.) Barristers traditionally organise themselves into groups of self-employed practitioners known as “sets” or “chambers,” typically specialising in an area of litigation. In addition in the UK and Republic of Ireland barristers are divided into senior barristers (Queen’s Counsel in the UK known as QCs (until a King is on the throne when the Q switches to K) or silks (from the fabric of their robes) or in Ireland as Senior Counsel (SCs)) and junior barristers.