What is a Lawyer?

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You might think that becoming a lawyer is the same as becoming an attorney. This is not the case, however, at least not in the United States. True, the terms are often used interchangeably, and both attorneys and lawyers are considered to be members of the legal profession. A lawyer in the United States, simply put, means someone who has been trained and educated in law. In order to be called a lawyer, one need not practice law. Attorneys in the United States, however, are lawyers who actually engage in the practice of law. Here we will discuss what makes a lawyer a lawyer.


Before becoming a lawyer, one must have a bachelor’s degree, and complete three years of law education at a law school. A lawyer is a person who has spent years studying and has earned a law degree [such as LLM or Juris Doctor (JD)] from a law school. A lawyer is one who is educated in the law but has not been licensed to practice the law in any state. Therefore, not all lawyers choose to take the bar examination (whereas attorneys, in order to practice law, must pass the bar exam in the state(s) in which they intend to practice).

Lawyer Education

If you are interested in pursuing a career as a lawyer, choose the level of education below that best describes your situation:

What Do Lawyers Do?

So, if lawyers are educated in the law but do not necessarily practice law, what, exactly, do lawyers do? Lawyers often are called upon to give legal advice and aid in legal matters. This is how they can put their law education to good use.

Lawyer Definition

The American Bar Association (ABA), which is the definitive organization in the United States when it comes to lawyers and attorneys, notes that a lawyer is a professional who advises others in legal matters. This is the main difference between attorneys and lawyers – lawyers may not practice law in court. However, they may advise clients on legal matters and help to draft and create legal documents.

Lawyer Duties

The two primary duties of lawyers are to uphold the law and to protect the rights of their client. They must thoroughly understand the law and be an effective communicator. Lawyers do not spend most of their time in court, unlike attorneys. Lawyers must carry out certain additional duties in the performance of their jobs. These duties differ from those of an attorney, and include:

  • Researching legal developments
  • Investigating facts
  • Drafting and writing contracts, wills and other legal documents
  • Working to assist other attorneys who practice in court (but not actually practice in court themselves)
  • Giving legal advice to clients
  • Settling disputes
  • May work as a consultant offering advice to government agencies or companies

Types of Lawyers

There are many types of lawyers, each of whom still offer legal advice to clients but do not represent them as an officer of the court:

  • Estate Lawyers – these types of lawyers help clients to create wills
  • Corporate Lawyers – these types of lawyers help clients set up business entities, such as sole proprietorships, limited liability companies (LLCs) and corporations
  • Tax Lawyers – these types of lawyers advice clients on tax and accounting issues
  • Family lawyers – these types of lawyers may draft documents such as prenuptial agreements or child custody agreements
  • Immigration Lawyers – these types of lawyers work with clients on matters such as citizenship, green cards, asylum and visas
  • Employment Lawyers – these types of lawyers help clients with employment matters such as contracts
  • Intellectual Property Lawyers – these types of lawyers help clients’ rights become protected through patents, trademarks and/or copyrights
  • Property/Real Estate Lawyers – these types of lawyers handle the legal aspects of real estate transactions and may help draft property agreements or leases
  • Private Practice Lawyers – these types of lawyers typically work in one-person or small law practices and may offer general legal advice to clients, often advising them on the meanings of terms and procedures found within legal documents
  • Government Lawyers – these types of lawyers work for a branch of government, usually at the city, state or federal level, working with policies and laws that affect their governing body
  • Environmental Lawyers – these types of lawyers represent clients, who may be individuals or companies, in environmental issues and challenges that impact the environment of our planet
  • Public Interest Lawyers – these types of lawyers work on reforming laws and representing clients in issues of interest to the public

Job Settings for Lawyers

As a lawyer, you may work in a wide variety of job settings. These include, but are not limited to, law firms, private practice, corporations, the government, public interest organizations, academia, and the judiciary. Just remember, when you work as a lawyer, you will not be trying cases in court, but you may be called upon to assist other lawyers with whom you work.

Work Hours for Lawyers

Most lawyers work at least full-time, 40 hours per week. Depending upon where you work, you may work longer hours than this, meeting with clients and researching cases on evenings and weekends.

Average Lawyer Salary

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) notes the annual median salary for lawyers in the United States, as of May 2022, is $135,740.

Job Outlook for Lawyers

The BLS notes that employment opportunities for lawyers are expected to grow by four percent from 2019 to 2029. This represents the average amount of growth expected for all occupations. There will be increased competition for lawyer jobs over the next decade, as more students are graduating from law school than there will be lawyer jobs available.

What About Esquire?

You may have seen a lawyer with the abbreviation Esq., for Esquire, after their name. This is an honorary title that has no real meaning. The American Bar Association does not approve or disprove of the use of Esq. for lawyers or attorneys. Beware, then, of thinking that a lawyer is licensed to practice law just because you see an Esq. after their name.

When to Hire a Lawyer vs. an Attorney

If a client has a matter that does not need to be litigated in court, a lawyer may be chosen to represent their interests instead of an attorney. Many people choose to represent themselves in basic legal matters, or choose a nonlawyer or paralegal to help them. Lawyers and attorneys, however, are the only professionals who have the legal education and training to provide qualified advice on legal matters.

Lawyers might seem to use language that laypeople simply cannot understand. Legal terms, which are often from Latin, may be used to express more complicated ideas, but may seem indecipherable to the common client. The American Bar Association notes that since 1978, federal regulations are required to be written in plain English and understandable to those who must comply with them. Some states also have similar laws requiring that legal documents, such as leases, consumer contracts and insurance policies, be written in plain, understandable English. In fact, law schools today are discouraging students from using “legalese” and encouraging future lawyers to express ideas in plain, understandable English.

You can also view what is an attorney and lawyer vs attorney pages.

2022 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and employment figures for Lawyers reflect national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed April 2023.