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The terms attorney and lawyer are often used interchangeably in the United States. There is very little distinction made between the two. This difficulty to differentiate is a result of the fact that in the United States, unlike in other countries, this distinction is not made. However, a slight one does exist.
A lawyer is someone who is learned and trained in law. Yet, they may not actually practice law. They often give legal advice. By attending law school in the United States, one can be considered a lawyer. A student of law must pass the bar exam in their particular jurisdiction in order to practice law by providing legal representation. Otherwise, the opportunities to use their law education are limited.
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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. The first known use of the term attorney-at-law was in 1768.
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. The English word attorney has French origins, meaning “a person acting for another as an agent or deputy.” An attorney actually practices law in court whereas a lawyer may or may not. An attorney has passed the bar exam and has been approved to practice law in his jurisdiction.
Although the terms often operate as synonyms, an attorney is a lawyer but a lawyer is not necessarily an attorney. To the general public, these terms may be used interchangeably but to the American Bar Association, the slight distinction is significant.
In other common law jurisdictions around the world such as England and Wales, more specific distinctions are drawn. There, they differentiate between those who practice law in court and those who do not by the use of terms such as solicitors, barristers, and advocates. In other countries, public notaries are also distinguished from attorneys.
A solicitor is a lawyer who deals with any legal matter. Typically, they don’t appear in court but prepare legal documents and work directly with clients providing legal advice. Historically, the term solicitor was used in the United States. It was referred to lawyers who handled cases in a court of equity. Whereas attorneys, at that time, only dealt with cases in a court of law.
On the other hand, barristers are called upon by solicitors if their case requires a court appearance. A barrister doesn’t work directly with clients but receives referrals from solicitors who are often retained by their clients. The solicitor will assist the barrister with all preparations for the case outside of court. Although this is not always the case, an advocate is another term for barrister in many English-law based jurisdictions.
An additional term used is esquire. It is employed at the end of an attorney’s name, abbreviated as Esq. Its purpose is to give an honorary title. Similar to the use of the abbreviations Dr. or Ph.D., it also signifies a professional title. Its origins are in England where the title was once reserved for males, as a term of respect for those of high social rank.
Esquire is a title one may tack on without the approval of the American Bar Association or any other legal entity. Therefore, it can be somewhat controversial. Some have added it to their names without having obtained the actual qualifications. This gives the false perception of their ability to legally practice law. Therefore, it serves to be cautious and not presumptuous when encountering this term.
If you are interested in pursuing a career as a lawyer or attorney, choose what education level that best describes you:
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