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A law society in current and former Commonwealth jurisdictions was historically an association of solicitors (effectively the trade organisation for solicitors) with a regulatory role that included the right to supervise the training, qualifications and conduct of lawyers/solicitors. Where there is a distinction between barristers and solicitors, solicitors were regulated by the law societies and barristers by a separate Bar Council.
Much has changed for law societies in recent years, with governments in Australia, New Zealand, England and Wales, and now Scotland (2010) creating government sponsored regulators for lawyers (both barristers and solicitors), leaving to law societies the role of advocacy on behalf of their members.
In Canada, law societies (or barreau, in Quebec) continue to have statutory responsibility for regulation of the legal profession in the public interest, leaving advocacy to the Canadian Bar Association.
In the United States, unified bar associations are somewhat similar to Law Societies; however, there are differences between law societies and the general American phenomenon of bar associations. Usually a bar association is an association of lawyers; lawyers may or may not join as they wish. Regulation of American lawyers usually takes places through the courts, which decide who gets admitted as a lawyer, and also decide discipline cases. Law societies are often created by legislation and play (or played) significant direct roles in the training, licensing and disciplining of lawyers. The conflict or roles between being a regulator and a trade association is seen by many as giving rise to the recent move to government sponsored regulators.
In Italy, the first law society (Bocconi International Law Society or B.I.L.S.) to be created is present in Milan and connected to Bocconi University School of Law.
Law Societies also play a role as part of the justice system, and concern themselves with access to justice. As a result, they may offer paid and unpaid legal assistance to the public or specific target audiences, and have historically been involved in the development of legal aid plans.
Law societies in the British Islands and Ireland
- Law Society of England and Wales (c. 1825)
- Law Society of Scotland (c. 1949)
- Law Society of Ireland (c. 1852)
- Law Society of Northern Ireland (c. 1922)
- Isle of Man Law Society (c. 1859)
- Ecclesiastical Law Society, Church of England
- Society of Solicitor Advocates, Scotland (1994)
Law societies in Continental Europe
Law societies elsewhere
- Law Society of Alberta (c. 1907)
- Law Society of British Columbia (c. 1869)
- Fiji Law Society
- Law Society of Hong Kong (c. 1907)
- Law Society of Manitoba (c. 1870)
- New Zealand Law Society (c. 1869)
- Law Society of Singapore (c. 1967)
- Law Society of Upper Canada (c. 1797)