Attorney vs. Lawyer Definition

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.

What Qualifies Someone as a Lawyer?

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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What Qualifies Someone as an Attorney?

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 wordattorney 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.

attorney vs lawyer

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.

Roles and Responsibilities

Understanding the terminology surrounding a lawyer vs. attorney is important for anyone interacting with legal professionals. An attorney, in the context of the United States legal system, is a professional who has completed law school and passed the official bar exam, is a member of a State Bar Association, and is licensed to practice law, thereby earning the right to practice law in a particular jurisdiction.

Attorneys must uphold the law and provide legal advice and representation to their clients. They can represent clients in criminal and civil court cases, draft legal documents, and conduct legal research. Their responsibilities include interpreting laws, rulings, and regulations for individuals and businesses. Given their role’s complexity and importance, attorneys must adhere to a strict code of ethics. To maintain their license, they must continue their legal education and stay updated on the latest legal developments.

Also, an attorney who has passed the bar exam may become a certified specialist in certain areas, such as civil litigation, family law, or criminal defense. This is done through a specialized program in which the lawyer must take additional courses and tests to prove their competency in that field. Those who have achieved this certification are given the title of “Certified Specialist Attorney” and may use the title of “Certified Specialist” or “C.S.” after their name.

On the other hand, a lawyer is a general term that refers to anyone trained in law. In the United States, this often means anyone who has graduated from law school, even if they still need to undertake the bar exams. Lawyers can offer legal advice but only represent clients in court if they become licensed attorneys. They may work in various capacities within the legal field, such as researchers, law professors, or consultants. Lawyers play an indispensable role in understanding, interpreting, and applying the law but do not have the same rights and responsibilities as attorneys.

Other Common Law Terms of Distinction

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.

They provide legal advice and represent clients in court. While solicitors must be qualified, they often have more flexible hours than barristers. They are typically involved in transactions such as commercial law, real estate, family law, probate, tax law, and more.

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.

The Professional Title Esquire

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.

Other Common Terms


A barrister is a type of lawyer who specializes in advocacy and litigation. They are experts in court proceedings and often represent clients in higher courts. Barristers have specialized training and usually have more experience in court than solicitors. They are also responsible for advising clients on legal matters, researching cases, and writing legal documents.


An advocate is like a barrister in that they are both litigation lawyers specializing in advocacy and court proceedings. However, advocates typically work with more complex cases such as criminal law, human rights law, international law, family law, medical negligence claims, and other civil matters.


The term “counsel” is often used to refer to lawyers in general, regardless of their specialty. Counsel can also be used as a specific title for a lawyer advising a court or client. Therefore, depending on the context, counsel may refer to barristers, solicitors, advocates, and other lawyers.

What’s the Difference between a J.D. and an Esquire?

A Juris Doctor (J.D.) is a degree that is awarded after completing law school, while “Esquire” (Esq.) is a title given to an attorney or lawyer who has passed the bar exam and been admitted to practice law. It is important to note that only attorneys have the right to use “Esquire” after their name, while those still in law school or have yet to pass the bar cannot use this title.

Attorneys with a J.D. degree may use “Doctor” before their name, but this is not required or preferred in formal settings. “Doctor” is typically reserved for those with medical or academic credentials, while lawyers may use “Esquire” as a title of respect and prestige.

Lawyer and Attorney Education

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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