What’s the Difference Between an Attorney and a Lawyer

An attorney is a lawyer, but a lawyer may not necessarily be an attorney.

On television, in advertisements, and from our friends, we often hear reference to “lawyers” and “attorneys.”  Despite the ease of categorizing these two words as synonyms, they do in fact mean different things.  The difference is only slight, but it matters a great deal to state bar associations, particularly in the investigation and prosecution of unauthorized practice of law cases.  However, practically speaking, the terms have become interchangeable in the United States.

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A lawyer is simply one who is trained in the law.  They may or may not provide legal guidance to another.  Thus, anyone who has attended law school in the United States can consider themselves a lawyer.  However, until they pass the bar exam in the jurisdiction in which they intend to work, the method by which they use their lawyering skills is limited.  For example, a policy advisor or consultant to the government, who attended law school, is technically a lawyer and may offer his skills in the course of his work, but he must not cross the fine line into providing legal representation.

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An attorney or attorney at law is also a lawyer.  They have attended law school and presumably “practice” the study of law as a career.  However, attorneys by definition have passed a bar examination and have been admitted to practice law in the particular jurisdiction.  They may go beyond the realm of lawyer and provide legal representation to an individual.  The relationship is more than merely providing the factual state of the law and delves into providing strategy for the client’s needs in reference to the law.  An attorney can also appear in court and other settings on behalf of a client.  An attorney is also a lawyer, but a lawyer may not necessarily be an attorney.

Want to complicate matters more?  The term esquire is also a source of confusion in the legal world, thanks in part to its use in the United Kingdom.  In the UK, esquire is an unofficial title of respect or honor.  It is used not only for barristers and solicitors (two other terms for lawyers/attorneys in Great Britain), but is also an honor bestowed upon doctors and Ph.D. graduates.  However, in the United States, esquire has become, almost exclusively, a title used by attorneys.  Some states, in the prosecution for unauthorized practice cases, have used as evidence the fact that the a non-lawyer signed documents with “Esquire” behind his/her name in order to hold themselves out to the public as an attorney.  However, no court in the United States has ever convicted an individual for unauthorized practice of law merely for using esquire.  In cases where the party was guilty and “esquire” was a factor, he was doing other things that amounted to unauthorized practice of law.

Though technical differences exist, practically speaking, only a lawyer would know the difference between lawyer, attorney, barrister, solicitor, or the limits on using esquire.  The general public can probably rest easy in a world of synonym, as long as they ensure the lawyer handling the case is also an attorney.

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About Preston Clark

Preston Clark has been writing about legal tech since 2010. He's currently the CRO for a leading legal tech SaaS company in the San Francisco Bay Area. Preston was formerly in-house counsel for the University of Miami and a Peace Corps Volunteer in Central America. In his free time, Preston enjoys building world-class sales teams, reading about SaaS, playing pick-up basketball and planning adventures with his son.

13 Responses to “What’s the Difference Between an Attorney and a Lawyer”

  1. chad hassan

    the term attorney at law carries the connotation that one could also be an attorney “at” something else, e.g., education, sociology, commerce, etc.

  2. Bob Flowstabaum

    This is very interesting, funny how barley anyone will ever bring it up….

  3. l

    in ranking?
    juris doctor

  4. Ted Rosenthal

    Attorney “at law” distinguishes from attorneys “in fact” (a way of describing those that hold a power of attorney). This reflects the more general meaning of “attorney” as someone authorized to act on behalf of another–at law, if a lawyer, in fact, otherwise.

  5. RevRSleeker

    This definition reads incorrectly, ‘esquire’ is merely a ‘style,’ or courtesy title, and is given to males alone in the UK ( historically an ‘Esquire’ was a Knights apprentice or his understudy ), certainly this isn’t a ‘title’ adopted by barristers \ solicitors and an ‘honour bestowed upon doctors and Ph.D. graduates’ alone…any male receiving a bank statement in the UK can testify to that fact.

  6. Ameur

    Corrected: Lawyer is like a doctor (family doctor, generalist)

    Attorney ( like a doctor but specialist)

    if a lawyer become specialist in Immigration, or Divorce etc then he is Attorney.

  7. Richard Johnson

    A lawyer is someone who is learned and trained in  law. Yet, they may not actually practice law. They often give legal advice.

    An attorney at law or attorney-at-law is typically abbreviated to attorney in everyday conversation. An attorney is considered the official name for a lawyer in the United States.An attorney-at-law is defined as a practitioner in a court of law who is legally qualified to prosecute and defend actions in such court on the retainer of clients.

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