Lawyers and attorneys–you’ve probably heard both of these words used interchangeably in daily life and in film. But is that usage actually correct? Do lawyer and attorney really mean the same thing? Or is there a difference between the two?
Spoiler alert: you know how all squares are rectangles, but rectangles aren’t squares? It’s kind of like that with lawyers and attorneys. Though it’s a little more complicated than that in America for arbitrary reasons, but we’ll get to that.
What’s the Difference Between a Lawyer and an Attorney?
Generally speaking, the difference between a lawyer and an attorney has long since shifted to a semantic argument. Bringing it up most of the time is going to get you a whole lot of “I don’t care,” and in some cases you might actually be wrong now.
Technically speaking, a lawyer is anyone with a formal law education. So someone who graduated from law school and then decided they’d rather sell cars than practice law is technically a lawyer. Lawyers (who cannot be attorneys) are therefore a little more limited in scope when it comes to what they can do. Normally, your lawyer (if they can’t represent you) gives legal advice and serves as a consultant; stuff like that.
Attorneys are the people who represent you in court. Generally, this means they have passed the bar exam in their area of jurisdiction. Which means, on a technicality, you can be an attorney in New York, but if you head to Seattle you’re just a lawyer until you take the bar there. Unless you’re one of those people who just collects legal certification and you want to practice everywhere. Go nuts.
So on the level we’ve just prescribed, attorneys can stand in the well and actually represent you in court. Lawyers are not necessarily supposed to do that (but since attorneys are also lawyers, they can). If you want to get more semantic and maybe a lot more redundant, you can also refer to your attorney as an attorney-at-law.
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Responsibilities of legal practitioners have long since grown to require more than just one person. That’s why we have stuff like big law firms dedicating all their resources to representing corporations, or TV shows with a team of lawyers poring over a single case. To that end, an attorney who can represent someone in court may never do so, since getting up and talking in a courtroom is only a small part of the job (it is the flashy one though).
What we just mentioned brings up another potential semantic argument that can be thrown around. Some consider an attorney a lawyer only until that person is representing someone in court. Under that argument, an attorney is a lawyer until they have a client. Regardless, an attorney is a title that requires distinct certification by the American Bar Association.
So to boil things down, attorneys and lawyers are like squares and rectangles. Attorneys are lawyers by virtue of attending law school, but not all lawyers are attorneys. Generally though, unless you’re staring down a trivia question or talking to a law nerd (and even then), it’s safe to use the two words interchangeably in the USA.
We’ll throw in a nice last word about Esquires, though. You don’t see it very often in America, for good reason. While it’s an honorary title, it originated in England as a term exclusive to high social standing (as well as being male). There’s no actual approval required to slapping the title of Esquire (Esq.) to your name, not by the American Bar Association, or anyone. Perhaps consider some skepticism if your legal representative exclusively calls themselves an esquire but never an attorney?
Want to see if you know even more random legal terms? Test your legal language skills here.