What is an Attorney?

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An attorney is not a lawyer, and vice-versa. While these terms are often used in place of each other in the United States, they mean different things. An attorney is a lawyer who has passed at least one bar examination to practice law in at least one state. A lawyer, as we discussed here, is a person who has been educated and trained in the law but does not practice law or represent clients in a courtroom setting. An attorney is a lawyer, but a lawyer is not necessarily an attorney.


An attorney, also referred to as an attorney-at-law, is a lawyer who has passed the bar examination. Attorneys must possess a bachelor’s degree, complete three years of law school education at an American Bar Association (ABA)-accredited law school, and pass the bar examination. Therefore, attorneys have the same education as lawyers, namely that they have received a Juris Doctor (JD) degree which entitles them to take the bar examination.

The bar examination lasts for multiple days, and tests a prospective attorney’s knowledge of selected areas of the law. A test on professional ethics and responsibility must also be passed. IN order to receive a license to practice law, an attorney must pass a character and fitness review, and be approved by a state committee that investigates character and background. All attorneys must take an oath swearing to support the laws of the state as well as the federal constitution. The state supreme court then gives an attorney their license that allows them to practice law and be called an attorney.

If an attorney wishes to practice in more than one state, they must usually pass the bar exam in each state in which they wish to practice. (Some states do have provisions for attorneys to participate in cases in states where they are not licensed to practice law, and they may appear “pro hoc vice,” meaning “for this one particular occasion.”

Attorney Education

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

What do Attorneys Do?

The main distinction between an attorney and a lawyer is that an attorney has passed the bar examination and is licensed to practice law in at least one state, whereas a lawyer has studied law and is educated but cannot legally practice the law. While the general public may call attorneys lawyers and vice-versa, the American Bar Association (ABA) knows that there is a difference between the two.

Attorney Definition

The word “attorney” is derived from the old French word “atorner,” which means “an agent chosen by another to act on his behalf.” This succinctly describes what an attorney does – they act on the behalf of their client, defending that client, pleading for them, and arguing for them.

Attorney Duties

Attorneys are expected to perform certain duties in carrying out their job descriptions. As they represent clients in court, the duties of an attorney are different than those of a lawyer, although there is some overlap. The duties of an attorney include:

  • Adhering to a code of ethics
  • Representing a client’s interests both in and out of the courtroom
  • Act as an officer of the court
  • Protecting attorney-client privilege (that is, the relationship between an attorney and their client in which everything a client says to an attorney is protected information)

Types of Attorneys

In addition to the types of lawyers discussed here, attorneys may also be classified under those same terms, with the addition that they represent clients in court. Other types of attorneys that must be considered include:

  • Power of Attorney – this is a document that gives an attorney (or other individual or firm) the financial, legal and/or medical rights to decide what’s best for their client’s interests. While it is common today for “lay” individuals to be given power of attorney in legal documents, the term originated as attorneys were originally given such powers
  • Attorney-in-Fact – this term describes an individual who is authorized to conduct business for another person (who may be a client or the principal). This is a temporary duty given to the attorney-in-fact by a Power of Attorney document. Again, the attorney-in-fact need not be a practicing attorney, but rather, a family member or close friend named in a Power of Attorney document to represent another’s interests.
  • Trial Attorneys – these types of attorneys represent clients in criminal or civil matters in court
  • Tax Attorneys – these types of attorneys represent clients against entities such as the Internal Revenue Service (IRS)
  • Estate Attorneys – these types of attorneys represent clients in litigation or court proceedings having to do with defending or contesting a trust or will
  • Immigration Attorneys – these types of attorneys contest or defend immigration matters for clients in court
  • Family Attorneys – these types of attorneys represent clients in court in divorce proceedings or child custody litigation
  • Personal Injury Attorneys – these types of attorneys help to negotiate compensation for damages for clients who have been injured through no fault of their own
  • Medical Malpractice Attorneys – these types of attorneys represent clients who are suing medical professionals for malpractice, or who are medical professionals being sued for malpractice
  • Intellectual Property Attorney – these types of attorneys help clients contest or defend a patent, trademark or copyright lawsuit in court

Job Settings for Attorneys

Attorneys may work in large law firms, for themselves in private practice either alone or with other lawyers, in academic institutions, in the judiciary, for the government, and for public interest organizations. The possibilities for work settings are almost endless when you have a JD degree and a law license.

Work Hours for Attorneys

Attorneys typically work at least 40 hours per week, although with the preparations for court cases, research, and meetings with other attorneys and clients, these hours can easily double. Most attorneys will work evenings, weekends and whenever necessary in order to get the job done and to be well-prepared for going to court and representing their clients.

Average Attorney Salary

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

Job Outlook for Attorneys

The BLS says that job opportunities for attorneys are projected to increase by four percent from 2019 to 2029. It is also expected that competition for attorney jobs will be fierce, as there are fewer jobs projected to be available than there are students who will be graduating from law school looking for them.

What About Esquire?

Some attorneys use the honorary suffix Esq., for Esquire, after their name. This title comes from England and has no real meaning, however. At one time, in England, it referred to males of higher social rank.  The American Bar Association does not condone nor restrict usage of Esq. for lawyers or attorneys. Seeing Esq. after an attorney’s name, therefore, does not signify anything special about that attorney.

When to Hire an Attorney vs. a Lawyer

If a client has a matter that must be litigated in court, that client usually needs to hire an attorney to help them do so. Lawyers can offer legal advice and handle matters that are not court-related. Attorneys have the same education as lawyers and have the added bonus of having passed the bar examination and being licensed to practice law in court.

You can also view what is a lawyer 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.