What’s The Difference Between Lawyer vs Attorney?

Lawyer vs Attorney

Most people imagine that the entire legal profession comes down to lawyer vs attorney, and that those two terms are interchangeable. But, just as there are many other jobs you can have with a law degree, there are some critical differences between those two in terms of both requirements and career paths. Law students interested in successfully obtaining a Juris Doctor or JD degree need to be aware of those distinctions.

There are many fulfilling and challenging career paths within the legal industry. Two common paths in this field include becoming an attorney or a lawyer. Though they share some similarities, there are several differences between these two careers. In this article, we will discuss the differences between an attorney and a lawyer and provide additional legal professions you may be interested in pursuing.

Lawyer vs Attorney: Requirements and Definitions

The terms “lawyer” and “attorney” have one crucial difference: While anyone who graduates from law school is a lawyer, that doesn’t automatically mean the same thing as becoming an attorney under US law. In other words, while all attorneys are lawyers, not all lawyers are attorneys.

To practice law and become an attorney, a lawyer must pass the bar exam and become a member of a state bar association. This exam covers a broad range of legal topics, such as constitutional law, tax law, wills, criminal procedure, torts, contracts, real estate law, and many others. In other words, the bar examination is a legal requirement for any law-school graduate who wants to practice professionally in their jurisdiction.

Keep in mind that, before joining the American Bar Association (ABA), and taking the exam, you have to get a degree from one of the 199 ABA-approved law schools.

What is an Attorney Definition ?

An attorney is someone who has graduated from law school and passed the bar exam in the state in which they practice law. In this role, an attorney can act as the legal representation for their clients in a court of law. Additional duties of an attorney include interpreting federal and state laws, applying their knowledge of the law to meet the needs of their clients and keeping careful records that outline their interactions with clients and other legal professionals.

The word “attorney” has French origins. It originally meant acting on others’ behalf as a deputy or agent. Nowadays, the meaning of the word has deviated slightly from that, but not by far.

An attorney – abbreviated from an “attorney-at-law” – is a lawyer who passed the state bar exam and can legally represent clients, practice law in court, take part in other legal proceedings, and offer legal advice directly pertaining to their client’s situation. They can also work as consultants for companies and individuals, just like regular lawyers.

So what is an attorney’s duty as part of a bar association? As its members, attorneys must comply with rules of professional conduct and a code of ethics to practice in court for both civil and criminal cases. The word ‘bar’ itself, in the context of legal proceedings, comes from Middle English, as well. It refers to the physical bar dividing a courtroom, at which law practitioners would speak (for the same reason, “barristers” are a type of attorney).

An attorney-at-law can also be defined as a court practitioner licensed by the state to defend a client or prosecute individuals accused of breaking the law.

Because of their similarities, the terms attorney and lawyer are used interchangeably in the United States, even though they are not synonyms. However, now that we are on the same page in the attorney vs. lawyer comparison, we can see some notable differences between the two titles, defining what each profession entails.

What is an Lawyer Definition ?

A lawyer is someone who has been educated in the law and has completed law school. They can provide legal advice to others, but they cannot represent clients in court because they have not passed the bar exam. Some lawyers work under attorneys to gain experience in a law firm setting while preparing to take the bar exam. Others choose not to pursue a career as an attorney and work as a consultant or a government advisor without having to take the bar exam.

The word “lawyer” has Middle English origins, referencing a person with law education and training.

A lawyer is someone who completed law school and obtained a JD degree. A lawyer doesn’t have to pass the bar exam, as there are plenty of job opportunities for people with a law degree and without it.

However, to practice law, provide legal advice, and offer courtroom aid, you’re required to pass the bar. It’s considered illegal for an unlicensed lawyer to give legal advice, and this can result in criminal charges and legal actions against the individual. Without it, law graduates may only provide legal information without interpreting how said information would apply to a particular problem.

Lawyers can work in a law firm under a licensed attorney or as part of an externship for learning experience. This is a path most graduates take prior to passing the bar exam. The exam itself is very demanding, takes a lot of preparation, and usually lasts for two or three days.

Education and licensure

The key distinction between these two professionals is the way they use their education. An attorney has taken and passed the bar exam, while a lawyer may or may not have completed this exam. The bar exam is administered by the state’s bar association and includes questions that test the knowledge of state-specific laws and general legal principles. The exam typically spans two or three days and takes a lot of time to prepare.

Both lawyers and attorneys have graduated from law school. Coursework in law school focuses on federal and state laws, past cases and how to apply logic and analysis to individual client needs.

In most cases, students who graduate from law school will earn a Juris Doctor (JD) degree. This is the degree that many lawyers and attorneys hold. Another option is the Master of Laws (LLM) degree, which is an advanced certification that gives the holder credibility on a global scale. The curriculum of an LLM program depends on the university offering it. Some focus on international and comparative law, while others include specialized courses in subfields, such as human rights law, tax law, international environmental law or intellectual property.

Specialization Lawyer vs Attorney

While attending law school, both lawyers and attorneys choose to specialize in an area of the law. When practicing, an individual in either role can provide legal advice and support in the specialization they chose. Some of the most common fields include:

  • Real estate law
  • Family law
  • Criminal law
  • Intellectual property law
  • General law
  • Corporate and business law
  • Tax law
  • Bankruptcy law
  • Civil rights law
  • Environmental law
  • Immigration law
  • Labor and employment law
  • Personal injury law


FAQ Lawyer Vs Attorney

  • The word lawyer has Middle English origins, and refers to someone who is educated and trained in law. Lawyers are people who have gone to law school and often may have taken and passed the bar exam.
  • Attorney has French origins, and stems from a word meaning to act on the behalf of others. The term attorney is an abbreviated form of the formal title ‘attorney at law’. An attorney is someone who is not only trained and educated in law, but also practices it in court. A basic definition of an attorney is someone who acts as a practitioner in a court of law.  

Attorneys, lawyers, and counsels have all been educated and trained in law. As explained above, attorneys must pass the bar exam, and practice law in court. Lawyers may or may not have taken the bar exam, and may or may not practice law. Counsels provide legal advice, and often work for an organization or corporation. The terms are often used interchangeably in everyday speech, despite the differences in meaning.

The American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct states that a lawyer “shall not knowingly make a false statement of material fact.” In other words, lawyers aren’t supposed to lie–and they can be disciplined or even disbarred for doing so.