The difference between an advocate and an attorney in South Africa

african american attorney discussing with client
17 Jul 2023

Understanding the difference between an advocate, and attorney in South Africa is vital to understanding the South African legal system.

Attorneys are lawyers who are client facing. They consult to their clients, provide legal advice, and draft and review legal documents. They often specialise in specific areas of the law, such as family law, commercial law, tax law, criminal law, labour law, intellectual property law, etc.

While both attorneys and advocates can appear in court, advocates are lawyers who specifically specialise in litigation and court proceedings. An attorney and their client may require the services of an advocate if a legal matter goes to court. The advocate will argue the case before the judge on behalf of the client. Like attorneys, advocates will generally specialise in a specific field of law, such as criminal law, civil law, commercial law, etc. Advocates take their instructions directly from the attorney.

For example, when a person requires an attorney to assist them with a divorce, they will generally go to a lawyer or law firm which specialises in family law. If the matter is required to go to court, the attorney may engage the services of an advocate to represent the client in court and give the client the best chances of succeeding in their case.

If a company wishes to sue another company for anti-competitive behaviour, or breach of contract, they will approach an attorney which specialises in the relevant field, and the attorney will the engage the services of an expert advocate to prepare the pleadings and argue the case before court.

Studying to be an attorney or an advocate

Both attorneys and advocates are required to study an LLB degree which takes a minimum of 4 years.

Thereafter, prospective attorneys are required to complete a two year article programme at a law firm, working as candidate attorneys, or one year practical vocational training via LEAD, and one year as a candidate attorney at a law firm. Additionally, the prospective attorney will need  to write and pass 4 board exams.

Prospective advocates are required to complete a 1 year pupillage programme with an admitted advocate and pass the bar exam.

Distinct areas of focus

Distinct areas of focus within the legal profession allow for specialisation in various fields, such as family law, criminal law, labor law, intellectual property law, or corporate law. By choosing a specific area to concentrate on during your career path, you can optimise your expertise and provide tailored services to meet your clients’ unique needs. Additionally, this targeted approach increases professional growth and development opportunities with specialised knowledge within a given field, that can ultimately lead to better outcomes in complex cases.

To assist you with your legal research, read GoLegal, where some of South Africa’s top law firms and lawyers share their knowledge and expertise.

(This article is provided for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. For more information on the topic, please contact the author/s or the relevant provider.)

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