Is there a Difference Between a Lawyer and an Attorney?

Sometimes, we hear the word lawyer and sometimes we hear the word attorney. They mean the same thing, right? Or is there any difference between a lawyer and an attorney? 

In common language, our day-to-day discussions, we probably mean the same thing when we talk about a lawyer and an attorney. They wear suits, they make objections, and they get you the compensation you deserve after a car accident, work injury, or slip-and-fall at the grocery store. 

So why do we use both words? When do we need a lawyer and what can we expect our attorney to do in our absence? Even though the words lawyer and attorney get used interchangeably, there are some hair-splitting differences in how we use each word. 

What is a Lawyer?

A lawyer is “a person learned in the law who provides legal advice or courtroom representation, according to Black’s Law Dictionary. A business owner might call a lawyer for legal advice if he’s got an issue of premises liability and doesn’t know whether he should pay for the injured party’s medical bills voluntarily. A lawyer can get you a divorce or get your DUI penalties reduced.  

In the U.S., each state has exclusive authority to regulate lawyers practicing within that state.

In most states, for a person to meet the requirements to be licensed to practice law, they must:

  • Have a bachelor’s degree 
  • Have a Juris doctorate (J.D.) from an accredited law school 
  • Successfully complete a multistate bar examination covering most subjects of law
  • Successfully complete a state-specific bar examination covering state law
  • Prove an appropriate standard of personal character and fitness to practice

After finishing these requirements to practice law, lawyers are licensed to practice law in their specific state, sometimes called being “admitted to the bar.” To earn a license in multiple states, lawyers have to take multiple state-specific bar examinations. 

Even if a person was not admitted to practice law, because of medical, personal, or academic reasons, they are still technically a lawyer. But a person who completed law school cannot give legal advice or represent clients in court, in most cases, unless they are licensed. 

What Does a Lawyer Do?

A lawyer’s job requires a portfolio of skills. In addition to having a working knowledge of the law, lawyers must be able to communicate with many kinds of people. Lawyers work to discover facts and influence the opinions of others with reasoning and evidence. 

Lawyers explain the law to clients and help them understand how it applies to the facts of their case. Lawyers call insurance adjusters, medical professionals, and other lawyers to negotiate or demand an explanation. Lawyers make grand opening arguments, present compelling evidence, and convince the judge or jury to rule in their clients’ favor. 

In practice, lawyers also prepare all kinds of documents. Letters, memos, and pleadings, which are the papers filed with the court, are some examples of documents prepared daily by lawyers. To gather evidence, lawyers write questions for the other party to answer under oath or ask questions of a witness in person in a deposition. Lawyers work with expert witnesses to evaluate scientific evidence that can help the court understand a case. 

What is an Attorney?

If a person learned in the law who practices law as a career is a lawyer, then what does an attorney do?

One definition of “attorney” is someone appointed by another person to act in their absence. The word attorney comes from the Latin root word to attorn. To attorn is to transfer one’s rights and obligations to another person.  

Maybe you’re familiar with the phrase power of attorney. In a power of attorney, one gives someone else the right to make decisions on their behalf. 

Having “power of attorney” describes the authority to act on behalf of another. The written document that gives a person the authority to act on someone else’s behalf is titled “Power of Attorney,” as well. 

Attorney and Lawyer: What’s the Difference?

There may be some technical differences between an attorney and a lawyer. But what you call them isn’t as important as choosing the right one. Many attorneys offer free consultations and that’s a risk-free way to evaluate whether an attorney is right for you.