Lawyer vs. Attorney: What Are the Differences?

After passing the California Bar Exam, Kim Kardashian will become a licensed lawyer without spending a day in law school. Kim or a foreign student who sits for a bar exam without attending law school may refer to themselves as lawyers and may be hesitant to use the term attorney in reference to their work and qualifications.

Lawyer vs. Attorney: What Are the Differences?

The difference between lawyer versus attorney is mainly in words’ etymology (historical origins). The word lawyer originated during the Middle English era the years between the Norman conquest (1066) and the 15th century. On the other hand, the term attorney is shorthand for attorney-at-law, originating from France, which means a person acting for another as an agent or deputy. 

There is no significant difference between attorney vs lawyer definition in contemporary legal practice. However, the term lawyer often refers to those licensed to practice but may or may not have a law degree, called the Juris Doctor (JD). On the other hand, the phrase attorney is more formal and applies to persons who have gone through all the typical steps of acquiring a practicing license, including obtaining a JD. Therefore, all attorneys are lawyers, but not all lawyers are attorneys.

Who Is a Lawyer?

According to the American Bar Association, the national body representing the legal profession, a lawyer is “also called an attorney, is a licensed professional who advises and represents others in legal matters.” A lawyer is a colloquial term used to refer to people who practice law. Though licensed to practice, they may or may not have a law degree or any other strict requirement for admission to the bar.

Who Is an Attorney?

An attorney is a more official term for an individual licensed to practice law. An attorney has a JD and has passed the American Bar Exam. 

Licensing Requirements for Attorneys

In states other than California, Virginia, and Washington, a person can become a licensed lawyer without going to law school. In Maine, New York, and Wyoming, one will need some law school experience and apprenticeship to qualify for the bar exam. 

Here are all the licensing requirements for an attorney:

  • College Degree – Part of the qualifications is a degree obtained from a college or university after four years of study. 
  • The Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) or the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) – Prospective law students sit for the LSAT upon obtaining a degree. The LSAT is a standardized test used to assess the logic and verbal proficiency. Some law schools accept GRE scores in place of the LSAT. GRE is a standardized test to determine a student’s suitability to take a graduate course. 
  • A Law School – With a good LSAT or GRE score, the student enters a three-year law school program in an institution the American Bar Association accredits.
  • Bar Exam – Upon acquiring a JD, the student must take the bar exam for the jurisdiction where they intend to practice as a lawyer. In most states, 40 percent of all the people who take the exam fail. 
  • Character and fitness assessment – After passing the bar exam and before admission to the bar, the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE) conducts a character and fitness evaluation. The evaluation is a background check to ensure the individual is ethical. During the assessment, the organization examines the records of crimes and arrests expunged from an individual’s records.   
  • Oath-taking – Having fulfilled all other requirements, the individual swears an oath to uphold the United States Constitution. The state supreme court or a local judge conducts the ceremony. 

A state’s bar association requirement may not require one or more of the above steps. In such cases, professionals who obtain practicing licenses consider themselves lawyers but may not refer to themselves as attorneys.

What If You Practice Law Without a License?

According to the American Bar Association, it is illegal to practice law without a license. Practicing law includes 

  1. Conducting oneself as an attorney – Acting as an attorney or lawyer who is licensed to practice law by actions such as establishing a law firm or legal office.  
  2. Providing legal representation – It is illegal to represent another entity as a lawyer. Representation includes engaging in negotiations or appearing before the court on behalf of another. However, representing yourself in court is not considered to be practicing law. 
  3. Legal document preparation – Preparing documents on behalf of another entity is practicing law. Though paraprofessionals such as paralegals can handle document preparation in some states. 
  4. Giving legal advice – Only a licensed lawyer can give legal advice that pertains to information about legal rights and how to respond to different laws and statutes. Non-lawyers such as paralegals can provide legal information but not advice.

Attorney vs Lawyer: Comparing Definitions

Here are the differences between the lawyer vs attorney definition: 

Lawyer Attorney 
May or may not have a JD.Has a JD.
May or may not have fulfilled all the standard academic steps of becoming a legal practitioner.Has fulfilled all the standard academic steps of becoming a legal practitioner.
Passed the bar exam and obtained a practicing license.Passed the bar exam and received a practicing license.
If without a JD, can only sit for a bar exam in the states that allow people to take exams without a law degree.Can sit for a bar exam in more than one state or take an exam that pre-qualifies an individual to practice in multiple states. 
Gives legal advice and represents clients in court and any other action that entails law practice.Gives legal advice and represents clients in court and any other action that entails law practice.

How to Choose the Right Attorney for Your Case

To choose the right attorney for your case, consider:

  • License – Ensure that your attorney of choice is licensed to practice law in your state. Ask the attorney for a state bar number, so you can confirm their license and find any record of unethical behavior. 
  • Experience and specialization – Specialization and experience are the hallmarks of expertise. A specialized lawyer understands the nuances of applying the relevant legal matters and knows the best way to present your case. Generalists will lack the depths and the professional networks crucial in every legal issue.
  • Awards and accreditations – An attorney with a reputation for excellence has awards and accreditations to show for it. While in the early stages of engaging a lawyer, before officially contracting their services, ask or see whether there are any accreditations or awards listed on their website. 
  • Reviews Using directories like Lawrina, read reviews left by former clients. Avoid attorneys with negative reviews and complaints about their service.
Also read:What Do When My Lawyer Is Not Fighting For Me?

If you find yourself represented by a bad lawyer and feel that their legal services are not what you expected, there might be somethin...

Other Similar Law Terms

There are other terms used to refer to legal professionals. Some of such terms are 

  1. Trial lawyer – A trial lawyer handles either civil or criminal litigation cases. For civil cases, insurance companies and other liable parties offer settlements a trial lawyer negotiates to avoid going to trial. In criminal litigation, the trial lawyer does what is necessary to mount a defense, including contacting witnesses, jury selection, and representation in court. The trial lawyer works for the client’s best interest in both cases. 
  2. Counsel – Used in reference to an in-house legal professional whose main job is to give legal advice. 
  3. Esquire  (Esq.) – Esq. is an honorary term for a practicing lawyer and does not suggest any extra qualification. 
  4. Advocate – The term advocate is used in the same way as lawyer and attorney. The term does not refer to any additional legal qualifications. 
  5. Paralegal – Refers to legal professionals who provide legal information and may often work as an assistant to a lawyer. One does not need a legal degree to become a paralegal but is required to have some form of legal and paralegal training. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Should I say lawyer or attorney?

Either way, use the terms lawyer or attorney in reference to a qualified and licensed legal practitioner. 

Is an attorney higher than a lawyer?

No. You can use the two terms interchangeably. However, the title of attorney is more formal than the word lawyer. 

Are lawyers called attorneys?

Yes. Technically, there is no lawyer and attorney difference. The terms are synonymous. However, due to differences in state rules, some people attain a practicing certificate without going through all the academic prerequisites, such as attending a law school, and may refer to themselves as lawyers but not attorneys. 

Attorney vs Lawyer Meaning?

Both are terms used to refer to licensed legal practitioners. However, the term attorney is more formal than the title lawyer. 

Article by Sofi Ostymchuk

Sofi Ostymchuk is a Content Lead and Legal Writer at Lawrina. Sofi manages the content on the blog, communicates with contributors, looks for interesting topics, and creates articles in cooperation with lawyers and law experts. If you would like to be a blogger for Lawrina, you can contact S0fi for all the details via email at s.ostymchuk@lawrina.com.

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