A law society is an association of lawyers with a regulatory role that includes the right to supervise the training, qualifications, and conduct of lawyers. Where there is a distinction between barristers and solicitors, solicitors are 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, each province and territory has a law society (French: barreau) with statutory responsibility for regulation of the legal profession in the public interest. These law societies are members of the Federation of Law Societies of Canada.
The 1739/40 Society of Gentleman Practisers in the Courts of Law and Equity has been described as the first law society in the United Kingdom. However its relationship to the modern Law Society of England and Wales (founded 1825) is unclear.
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.
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 Australia represent the interests of solicitors and are organised in each State and mainland territory. Australia has a split profession, and barristers' interests are represented by separately-organised Bar Councils in each State and territory. The Law Council of Australia is a peak body representing the interests of all legal practitioners at federal level.