Lawyer vs Attorney: What’s the Difference?

Most people use the terms “lawyer” and “attorney” interchangeably. But, as you’ll discover in this article, they don’t necessarily mean the same thing. 

Practically speaking, you are unlikely to run into issues if you use the wrong term. But being aware of the differences can help you make better decisions about which type of professional to look for when you require legal assistance. 

Differences In Licensing

A person has to go through formal legal training to call themselves a lawyer. In fact, that is the definition of a lawyer – a person who has completed training to the standards required by the state to permit them to practice law. (Some states, such as Vermont, allow people to call themselves “lawyers” even if they do not have a degree so long as they have spent long enough training under an existing practicing lawyer or as part of a firm). 

An attorney, by contrast, is somebody who is licensed to represent a client in court. 

So, for example, a student who has passed his or her law degree exams is technically a lawyer because they have had training in the law to the standards required to obtain a degree; those who specialize further, such as IP lawyers, pursue additional qualifications to practice in specific fields of law. However, unless they have a job with a law firm and have met their state’s licensing requirements, they cannot call themselves an attorney. The attorneys at Goldstein Patent Law recommend becoming very familiar with your state’s specific requirements (or the state you intend to practice in) to ensure you know what you need to do in order to be considered an attorney.

Clearly, most lawyers with paying clients are also attorneys. That’s because clients want lawyers who can represent them in court, but not always. In some cases, they may seek a lawyer who doesn’t practice in court just to get their advice. While they can’t represent them in front of a jury, they may be able to provide more affordable consultations. 

Differences In Etymology

The words “lawyer” and “attorney” have different origins in language. 

The term “lawyer” comes from the Middle English word for somebody “trained in matters of the law.” Originally, people used it to refer to students who had been through law school and passed the bar exam – just as today. 

The word attorney comes from a French word that means “acting on behalf of others.” It is one of the reasons why the legal system still refers to so-called “powers of attorney” when a person (usually a family member) takes over managing the financial estate of a person who is deceased. 

In the US, the word attorney is short for “attorney at law.” This means somebody who is both trained and actively practices law in court. So, for example, a personal injury lawyer is usually an attorney, whereas a tax advice lawyer doesn’t necessarily have to be. 

Other Common Legal Roles

There are other common legal roles that you may come across in your search. These include: 

  • Barrister – a term used in the UK that means the same as attorney
  • Solicitor – a professional practicing law in the UK and other countries who provides primarily client-facing services
  • Counsel – a general term for anyone legally permitted to provide legal advice in the US
  • Advocate – a term in the US with could refer to either a lawyer or an attorney but carries no legal significance in and of itself.
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