What is an attorney or a lawyer?
What is the difference between attorney vs lawyer?
What are the qualifications, duties, practice areas of a lawyer vs attorney?
What do the terms attorney, lawyer, barrister, solicitor, esquire, counsel, attorney-at-law, attorney-in-fact, prosecutor, litigator and advocate mean?
There are so many terms and it may get all confusing!
In this article, we are going to sort through all of this for you.
We will define what is a lawyer, what is an attorney, what are the differences between attorneys and lawyers, the difference in their studies, the legal ability to represent people, qualifications and more!
By the time you are done reading this article, you’ll be able to easily make out the important differences between these terms!
Are you ready?
Let’s get started…
Table of Contents
What is a lawyer
To distinguish a lawyer from an attorney, let’s first look at what the term ‘lawyer’ means.
According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, a lawyer is defined as:
one whose profession is to conduct lawsuits for clients or to advise as to legal rights and obligations in other matters
What is notable with this definition is that a lawyer advises as to legal rights and obligations.
Duties of a lawyer
A lawyer is a person who is trained in the field of law but may not necessarily practice law in court.
In other words, you can be a lawyer without being an officer of the court.
The duties of a lawyer are to advise individuals and companies as to their legal rights and obligations, interpret statutes, regulations and policies, draft legal documents and provide legal advice to businesses.
Lawyer practice areas
A lawyer can provide legal advice in any area of the law they are specialized in.
There are many legal fields out there.
To give you a flavour, a lawyer can provide legal advice in the following fields:
The list can go on and on.
A lawyer is a person who provides legal advice by working out of an office without having to go to court.
You can have a lawyer work for a law firm, act as an in-house legal counsel to an organization, general counsel, a legal consultant, a government advisor or other non-litigation legal functions.
To be qualified to give legal advice as a lawyer, you need to study in the field of law by attending law school.
The studies must include at least an undergraduate degree, perhaps a master’s degree or even a Ph.D. in law.
Once the university studies are over, a lawyer must pass the bar exam, complete an internship and obtain a license from the bar association to be able to practice as a lawyer.
What is an attorney
Now that we know what a lawyer is, let’s look at what is an attorney.
According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, an attorney is defined as:
one who is legally appointed to transact business on another’s behalf
What is notable with this definition is that an attorney is a person appointed to transact on another’s behalf.
Historically, the term “attorney” is known to be used for the first time in the 14th century and it comes from the Anglo-French term “aturné” to mean “one appointed”.
Duties of an attorney
An attorney is the ‘modern’ way of referring to an attorney-at-law.
Technically speaking, attorney is the proper or official term to refer to a lawyer.
Unlike a lawyer who may or may not practice law, an attorney practices law in court and represents plaintiffs and defendants in lawsuits.
The term “attorney at law” was created around in 1768 to distinguish a lawyer (someone who had studied law) from an attorney (someone who represented clients and appeared at the bar).
Eventually, instead of saying attorney-at-law, the term got shortened to just attorney.
The qualifications of an attorney are the same as the qualifications of a lawyer.
To become an attorney, you must have gone to law school, obtained a law degree and then successfully passed your bar exams, complete an internship to obtain a license to legally practise law as an attorney.
For attorneys-at-law to be able to practice law and represent clients in court, just like lawyers, they must be duly licensed within their jurisdiction.
The difference between a lawyer and an attorney is that the attorney will represent a client in court whereas a lawyer will not.
There are no specific studies or qualifications that you need to act as an attorney vs lawyer.
An attorney can represent a client in the context of legal actions and lawsuits such as:
- Civil lawsuits and civil litigation (litigation attorney or civil attorney)
- Represent a client before a tax court (tax attorney)
- Defend IP infringement cases (IP attorney)
- Enforce breach of contracts in court (contract law attorney)
- Seek damages for personal injury cases (personal injury attorney)
- Represent employees terminated without cause (employment attorney)
- File class action lawsuits (class action attorney)
- Sue for unfair competition tactics (competition attorney)
The list can be very long, these are just a few examples.
Keep in mind that an attorney can also give legal advice to clients without going to court.
Attorneys and lawyers are both specialized in a specific area of law or are general practitioners with the difference that attorneys are also competent in litigation and court procedures.
Is an attorney and a lawyer the same thing
In the United States, the term “attorney” and “lawyer” is often used interchangeably although they do not necessarily mean the same thing.
A lawyer is a person who is trained in the field of law whereas an attorney or “attorney-at-law” is a person legally qualified to prosecute and defend legal actions in court.
As such, an attorney is a lawyer but a lawyer is not necessarily an attorney.
That’s because an attorney represents a person in court and can advise a person on their legal rights and obligations while a lawyer will primarily advise people on their rights and obligations without necessarily representing anyone in court.
Attorneys and lawyers will sign a letter of representation to formalize the client-lawyer relationship.
License to practice law
In the United States, the terms attorney or lawyer refer to the same thing are used synonymously to refer to a legal practitioner.
To be clear, both lawyers and attorneys are licensed legal practitioners and are legally authorized to provide legal advice.
Some say that a lawyer is a person trained in the field of law and who has graduated from law school but did not pass the bar exams and did not receive a license to represent people while an attorney has passed the bar exams and can represent clients.
Historically, this distinction could have been made but today, this description is not a correct differentiation of lawyers vs attorneys.
What’s the difference between a lawyer and an attorney
In this section, we’ll look at the difference between an attorney and a lawyer.
An attorney is a person who will represent a client and the interests of that client.
The term attorney-client privilege comes from the fact that the client is being represented by an attorney and the communications between the attorney and the client must be kept secret.
Typically, an attorney represents a client in court, prosecutes cases, defends a client against lawsuits and makes representations in court on behalf of a client.
A lawyer, on the other hand, has the same legal qualifications as an attorney but does not represent a client’s interest or does not represent them in court.
In practice, for example, a lawyer handling corporate law vs commercial law and providing legal support to a company in its day-to-day operations does in fact represent the client and provides legal advice but does not go to court or handle commercial litigation or corporate litigation.
Today, the most notable nuance between an attorney and a lawyer is with respect to court representations, representing a client in the context of legal action, lawsuit, court proceedings and acting as an officer of the court.
An attorney represents a person in court, a lawyer does not but can help an attorney.
An attorney can also act as a lawyer and provide legal advice to a client without representing them in court while a lawyer is not an attorney nor goes to court.
Both the attorney-in-law and lawyer study law and obtain either an undergraduate degree (Juris Doctor or JD), a master’s in law (LLM) or a doctorate in law (LLD).
Although a person may obtain a university degree in the field of law, he or she does not have the legal authority to represent the interests of a client.
To represent a client, you need to be licensed by the state to do so.
To practice law, give legal advice and represent people, a lawyer or attorney must be licensed by the state to do so.
To become a licensed legal practitioner, law school graduates must pass their bar exams.
The bar exam is a formal examination process where the lawyers association (bar association) will test the knowledge and legal proficiency of the law school graduates to ensure they meet the minimum level of knowledge required to be a practicing legal officer.
Once the bar exams are successfully passed, the state issues a license to the law school graduate authorizing them to legally advise clients and represent individuals or companies.
That’s when we say the person is “admitted to the bar”.
In other words, the person is licensed to legally exercise the profession of a lawyer or attorney.
Many lawyers will indicate the year they were admitted to the bar on their c.v. or online biography to show the number of years of experience they have.
Attorneys and lawyers study law at the undergraduate level to acquire knowledge in the field of law, to be able to read and understand statutes, regulations, legal doctrines and case laws.
Some students in law choose to pursue their education to further specialize themselves in certain areas of the law by getting a master’s degree or a doctorate in law.
Many however will choose to pass their bar exams right after their undergraduate degree to get licensed to practice law.
Following that, a student must complete an internship where they work with a lawyer or attorney to learn the real-life profession of law.
In this context, the internship of a student may dictate the specific area of law they will specialize in their career.
If a law student performs his or her internship in real estate law, it’s more likely that this person will specialize in real estate law throughout his or her career.
Lawyer vs attorney
What is the difference between lawyer and attorney?
Although there are differences, today these terms are used interchangeably and have significant overlap.
In fact, the term lawyer and attorney are used as synonyms.
By definition, a lawyer and attorney are both trained in the field of law but the attorney will also represent clients in court.
However, the terms lawyers and attorneys are both used to represent a legal professional trained in law, who provides legal advice to clients, conducts legal proceedings and represents client interests.
Attorney vs prosecutor
A prosecutor is a person who initiates a legal action before the court, typically before the criminal court.
A prosecutor is essentially a type of attorney like business attorney, real estate attorney, contract attorney or corporate attorney.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, prosecution means:
the institution and continuance of a criminal suit involving the process of pursuing formal charges against an offender to final judgment
The main difference is that the prosecutor institutes a criminal action on behalf of the state whereas other attorneys are not authorized to act as such.
A civil attorney or litigation attorney can file legal proceedings against someone in a civil court but cannot commence a criminal action against someone.
Attorney vs advocate
The terms attorney and advocate can have similar meanings but are not the same thing.
An “advocate” is a person who pleads a cause before the court in the same way an “attorney” represents a client’s interest in court.
Generally, we refer to legal practitioners as attorneys.
The term advocate can be used to refer to a legal practitioner but it’s not as common.
More often, the term advocate is used to indicate that a person supports or promotes a certain cause or interest rather than to refer to an attorney.
Attorney vs lawyer vs Esquire
The term Esquire is used by attorneys as an honorary title.
You’ll see the abbreviation Esq. at the end of an attorney’s name.
According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, the term esquire is defined as:
used as a title of courtesy often by attorneys usually placed in its abbreviated form after the surname
You can consider Esq. to be the same title of courtesy as Dr.
On the other hand, the terms attorney and lawyer refer to the actual profession and not the title of someone in that profession.
The title “Esq.” does not have any official significance in the United States and is not governed by the American Bar Association (ABA).
It is often used by lawyers and attorneys to convey their profession when writing their names the same way as a doctor writes “Dr” to refer to his or her title when writing their name.
Solicitor vs lawyer
In certain common law jurisdictions, they may refer to terms like barristers and solicitors or event advocates instead of lawyers or attorneys.
According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, a solicitor is defined as:
a British lawyer who advises clients, represents them in the lower courts, and prepares cases for barristers to try in higher courts
The term solicitor is used in England and Wales to refer to a person who prepares legal documents and works with clients but does not represent the client in court.
In the United States, the term solicitor was used to refer to a person qualified in law handling matters in the court of equity as opposed to the court of law.
The term “lawyer” is similar to “solicitor” whereby you are referring to a person trained in the field of law, gives legal advice to clients but does not represent them in court.
Barrister vs lawyer
A barrister is a person qualified in law who represents cases in court.
Typically, solicitors work with the client, prepare the file and give legal advice while the barristers work with the solicitors to handle the matter in court.
To prepare a matter for the court, the barrister works with the solicitor and not necessarily with the client.
Lawyers and barristers are both legally authorized to interpret statutes and laws and advise clients.
However, a lawyer will not represent a client in a court of law while a barrister, in the England and Wale jurisdictions, represents a person in courts.
Barrister vs solicitor
In the UK and England of Wales, barristers and solicitors are professionals acting in the field of law.
The barristers represent a group of legal professionals who represent clients in court (appear at the bar) and solicitors who provide legal advice but do not represent clients in open court (do not appear at the bar).
Barristers typically do not deal directly with the clients but rather work with the solicitors.
Advocate vs lawyer
The term “advocate” is used in English common law jurisdictions to refer to a barrister.
An advocate is a person who represents a matter when it requires a court appearance.
The advocate works with the solicitor to prepare the matter for the court.
Counsel vs attorney
When referring to the term counsel, you are referring to a body of legal advisors.
By referring to someone as counsel, you are generically referring to a legal professional of some kind, whether a group of legal professionals or one single person.
Counsel is also a term used to refer to a lawyer, attorney, advocate, counsellor or counsellor-at-law.
The same nuances between counsel vs attorney apply to lawyer vs counsel.
Attorney-at-law vs attorney-in-fact
An attorney-at-law is a legal professional authorized and licensed to practice law, give legal advice and represent a client’s interest.
The attorney-at-law earns his or her living practicing in the field of law.
An attorney-in-fact is a person who is given a power of attorney to make certain decisions on behalf of another person such as financial decisions or medical ones.
The rights granted to an attorney-in-fact stem from either a General Power of Attorney or a Special Power of Attorney.
An attorney-in-fact can be anyone, a friend or family member and is generally not an attorney-in-law nor does he or she earn a living acting as such.
However, an attorney-in-law can be designated as an attorney-in-fact under a Power of Attorney.
Attorney vs Lawyer FAQ
What is the difference between a lawyer and a litigator?
Commonly, a lawyer is understood as a person who has studied law, is licensed and proficient in interpreting laws, assessing legal rights and obligations and representing clients within or outside a courtroom.
To say that someone is a lawyer is to say that the person is a professional operating in the field of law.
A litigator is a type of lawyer particularly a legal professional who carries our legal contests, is involved in lawsuits and court proceedings.
In this context, a litigation lawyer or litigator is a lawyer specialized in an area of the law along with the court rules of procedure.
For example, a patent litigation lawyer is a lawyer specialized in understanding the laws applicable to patents and the procedures to litigating a patent dispute in court.
The litigator is competent in drafting court motions and petitions, pleading a legal matter before a judge or jury, deposing witnesses, cross-examining witnesses and procedurally managing a lawsuit.
Why are lawyers called attorneys at law?
The official term to refer to a legal practitioner able to represent a client is “attorney-at-law”.
Historically, it was used to distinguish a person able to represent a person at the bar, before the courts, versus a person who is knowledgeable in law but cannot represent someone at the bar.
Back then, a lawyer was a person who was trained in law but was not authorized to appear at the bar.
Eventually, with time, attorney-at-law was shortened to simply “attorney”.
What qualifies someone as a lawyer?
For someone to publicly present themselves as a lawyer and claim they can provide legal advice and legally represent someone, they must be qualified academically and legally.
To be qualified academically, it means that a lawyer must have studied law, demonstrated strong knowledge and understanding of legal concepts and doctrines and obtained a university degree.
To be legally qualified as a lawyer, a student in law must obtain a university degree and then be licensed by the state.
To be licensed by the state, a student must pass rigorous exams (bar exam) and then complete several months of internship.
Once that is done, a person will be admitted to the local bar association and can publicly claim to be a lawyer.
What qualifies someone as an attorney?
Like a lawyer, to be authorized to publicly claim that you are an attorney, you must have:
- Obtained a law degree from a university (undergraduate, masters or Ph.D.)
- Passed the state bar exams
- Successfully completed an internship
- A license issued by the state
Do lawyers and attorneys need a license to practice law?
Both lawyers and attorneys are legally licensed to practice law but the attorney will represent clients in court, understand the court rules of procedure, handles legal proceedings and is an officer of the court.
A lawyer is a legal professional providing legal services sitting in an office in a law firm, as a legal counsel in a company, perhaps a general counsel or another legal advisor without pleading a case in court.
An attorney can do the same thing as a lawyer but also represent a person before the court of law.
Some create a distinction between an attorney versus lawyer where they argue that a lawyer is a person with a university degree but without a license to represent clients and an attorney is a person with a law degree and a license to represent clients.
The true distinction between a lawyer and an attorney is with regard to court representation and not from a licensure point of view.