Most people imagine that the entire legal profession comes down to lawyers and attorneys, and that those two terms are interchangeable. But, just as there are many other jobs you can have with a law degree, there are some critical differences between those two in terms of both requirements and career paths. Law students interested in successfully obtaining a Juris Doctor or JD degree need to be aware of those distinctions.
Attorney vs. Lawyer: Common Requirements and Definitions
The terms “lawyer” and “attorney” have one crucial difference: While anyone who graduates from law school is a lawyer, that doesn’t automatically mean the same thing as becoming an attorney under US law. In other words, while all attorneys are lawyers, not all lawyers are attorneys.
To practice law and become an attorney, a lawyer must pass the bar exam and become a member of a state bar association. This exam covers a broad range of legal topics, such as constitutional law, tax law, wills, criminal procedure, torts, contracts, real estate law, and many others. In other words, the bar examination is a legal requirement for any law-school graduate who wants to practice professionally in their jurisdiction.
Keep in mind that, before joining the American Bar Association (ABA), and taking the exam, you have to get a degree from one of the 199 ABA-approved law schools.
The word “lawyer” has Middle English origins, referencing a person with a law education and training.
A lawyer is someone who has completed law school and obtained a JD degree. A lawyer doesn’t have to pass the bar exam, as there are plenty of job opportunities for people with a law degree without it.
However, to practice law, provide legal advice, and offer courtroom aid, you’re required to pass the bar. It’s considered illegal for an unlicensed lawyer to give legal advice, and this can result in criminal charges and legal action against the individual. Without it, law graduates may only provide legal information without interpreting how said information would apply to a particular problem.
Lawyers can work in a law firm under a licensed attorney or as part of an externship for learning experience. This is a path most graduates take prior to passing the bar exam. The exam itself is very demanding, takes a lot of preparation, and usually lasts for two or three days.
The word “attorney” has French origins. It originally meant acting on others’ behalf as a deputy or agent. Nowadays, the meaning of the word has deviated slightly from that, but not by far.
An attorney - abbreviated from “attorney-at-law” - is a lawyer who has passed the state bar exam and can legally represent clients, practice law in court, take part in other legal proceedings, and offer legal advice directly pertaining to their client’s situation. They can also work as consultants for companies and individuals, just like regular lawyers.
So what is an attorney’s duty as part of a bar association? As its members, attorneys must comply with rules of professional conduct and a code of ethics to practice in court for both civil and criminal cases. The word "bar" itself, in the context of legal proceedings, comes from Middle English, as well. It refers to the physical bar dividing a courtroom, at which law practitioners would speak (for the same reason, "barristers" in the United Kingdom are a type of attorney).
An attorney-at-law can also be defined as a court practitioner licensed by the state to defend a client or prosecute individuals accused of breaking the law.
Because of their similarities, the terms "attorney" and "lawyer" are used interchangeably in the United States, even though they are not synonyms. However, now that we are on the same page in the attorney vs. lawyer comparison, we can see some notable differences between the two titles, defining what each profession entails.
An attorney-in-fact is the only exemption to the JD degree and bar certification requirement for attorneys. An attorney-in-fact is a person granted the power of attorney by someone else, and need not have a legal education background to use their status.
A critical difference between these two types of legal professionals relates not to the type of education they get, but to its application. Aside from a Juris Doctor degree law school graduates earn, students have other options to build their resumes, too.
A Master of Laws or LLM degree is a more advanced option offered by universities with a law program, giving practitioners knowledge that can be applied anywhere. However, they will probably need additional education and licenses to practice in parts of the world outside the jurisdiction where they got their degree. This can also play a significant role in how much a lawyer earns.
As mentioned, there aren’t any real differences in the level of basic education when it comes to the lawyer vs. attorney showdown, but legal professionals often have a specialized field of law they are most experienced in. For instance, the Master of Laws degree curriculum can focus on international law, human rights law, intellectual property and patent law, or environmental law.
And even without a LLM degree, there are many different types of lawyers with industry-specific skills. Most law schools provide a broad education in various fields of law, like real estate, intellectual property, criminal, family, corporate, business, civil rights, tax, bankruptcy, labor and employment, and personal injury law.
Both lawyers and attorneys undergo additional training related to their chosen areas of expertise, and rarely switch from one field to another. For example, an immigration lawyer will need specific education and experience to deal with complex cases concerning green cards, visas, acquiring citizenship, etc.
Therefore, a legal professional will often specifically advertise as a family lawyer, estate lawyer, personal injury lawyer, etc.
An Attorney vs. a Lawyer and Other Legal Professions
“Solicitor” is another name for a law professional in the UK and other countries. These professionals’ duties are to serve as advisors to their clients, draft documents, prepare cases for trial, and help with any other legal matter. A solicitor deals with clients in a primarily administrative setting and may appear in a lower court setting.
A barrister is another UK term for a legal professional whose duty is to represent their client’s best interest in court. Barristers most often deal with complex matters, appearing in courts, tribunals, and other litigation processes. However, barristers don't work in a client-facing setting - instead, instead, solicitors act as intermediaries between them and those they're representing.
There is no difference between a lawyer and an attorney when they’re working as in-house counsel. In this case, both must pass the state bar to be eligible to provide legal advice. In the US, these legal professionals work for corporations or other types of organizations.
Esquire (Esq.) is an honorary title for a lawyer who has passed the bar exam and therefore holds the license of the state’s bar association. It’s the equivalent of a Dr. or Ph.D. in other professions, but requires no approval from ABA to use. It’s included on business cards, signatures, or resumes. Furthermore, this title also is used in England for a male member of the gentry, ranking just below a knight.
The term “advocate” is used as a synonym for an attorney or a lawyer in the US without any additional legal significance. Advocates are authorized to give legal advice and may offer free consultations to specific groups they're advocating for. The term doesn’t take into account the lawyer vs. attorney differences with respect to how they practice law.