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“Attorney” vs. “Lawyer”: What’s The Difference?

female lawyer speaking to judge in a courtroom, teal filter.

Lawyer is a general term for a person who gives legal advice and aid and who conducts suits in court.

What’s the difference between an attorney and a lawyer?

Technically speaking, all attorneys are lawyers, but not all lawyers are attorneys. The word attorney, a common shortening of attorney-at-law, refers to a person who has successfully passed the bar examination (or bar exam). This means that they are legally qualified to represent clients in court. The word lawyer can be applied to someone who has earned a law degree (a juris doctor degree and/or a bachelor of laws degree). But in technical use, it is not applied to someone who has not passed the bar exam.

Both an attorney and a lawyer can provide legal counsel, but only a person who has passed the bar exam (an attorney) may represent a client in a courtroom. In other words, someone who is a lawyer but not an attorney cannot take part in legal proceedings in the courtroom.

Generally speaking, most lawyers are in the process of becoming attorneys. However, the bar exam is notoriously difficult, and a person may work as a lawyer for a long time before they pass the exam and are able to represent clients in court.

Still, in casual, nontechnical contexts, the word lawyer is very commonly used to refer to attorneys.

The word attorney comes from French, meaning “one appointed or constituted,” and the word’s original meaning is of a person acting for another as an agent or deputy.

Barristers vs. solicitors

In the UK, those who practice law are divided into barristers, who represent clients in open court and may appear at the bar, and solicitors, who are permitted to conduct litigation in court but not to plead cases in open court. Typically, barristers are hired by solicitors on behalf of a client.

What’s a counsel?

Counsel usually refers to a body of legal advisers but also pertains to a single legal adviser and is a synonym for advocatebarristercounselor, and counselor-at-law.

As to the abbreviation Esq. for Esquire used by some lawyers, it has no precise significance in the United States except as sometimes applied to certain public officials, such as justices of the peace. For some reason, lawyers often add it to their surname in written address. However, it is a title that is specifically male with no female equivalent, so its use by lawyers is fading away.

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