Attorney. Attorney at Law. Lawyer. Do you know the difference between a lawyer and an attorney? Is there any difference? 

In U.S. media, law schools, and courtrooms, the words lawyer and attorney are used as synonyms. As we most commonly think of them, they mean the same thing: a person who practices law by representing clients in legal disputes. 

What, then, about the district attorney? The attorney general? And what about power of attorney? Although we use the words lawyer and attorney interchangeably, historical usage shows they have some nuanced differences. 

How to Become a Lawyer

Black’s Law Dictionary defines “lawyeras “a person learned in the law,” who, for a fee, prosecutes or defends cases of record or who provides legal advice. This is the kind of person, then, to call about a divorce.

Each state in the U.S. makes its own regulations about the practice of law. 

In most states, to hold a license to practice law and represent clients in public courts, a person must:

  • Earn a bachelor’s degree (typically completed within 4 years)
  • Earn a Juris doctorate (J.D.) from an accredited law school (typically completed in 3-4 years)
  • Pass a multistate bar examination (testing knowledge of the law)
  • Pass a state-specific bar examination (testing knowledge of the state law)
  • Satisfy a character and fitness evaluation

Upon completion of the requirements to practice law, lawyers are “admitted to the bar,” or licensed to practice law in their specific state. Some lawyers hold licenses in multiple states. 

A person who graduated from law school but was never admitted to practice law is still technically a lawyer. However, most states strictly forbid “practicing” law without a license. Thus, a person who has not been admitted to practice law might face penalties for giving legal advice to someone else. 

The Origin of Attorney

If a lawyer is a person who practices law, what the heck is an attorney?

The Latin root of the word attorney is to attorn. In English, it means to transfer one’s rights and obligations to someone else.  

Therefore, when we give someone power of attorney, we give them the right to make decisions on our behalf. Plainly, “power of attorney” means the power to act on someone’s behalf. Power of attorney is also the name of the written document authorizing another person to act on someone’s behalf. 

The power of attorney can specify what authority, specifically, is being transferred.  Most people prepare a power of attorney in case of debilitating injury or illness. 

As defined in Black’s Law Dictionary, “attorney” includes a person appointed by someone to do something in their absence, or to act in their place. An attorney-at-law would be a person you appoint to handle your legal affairs.  

Today, it is not so common for people to appoint others to handle their affairs in their absence. However, it is common for a lawyer practicing alone to advertise their services as an “attorney-at-law.”  Attorney-at-law commonly refers to a practicing lawyer. 

The attorney general is the main legal advisor of a government. The office of the attorney general, whether at the state or federal level, generates legal opinions. The attorney general also guides the government’s legal positions on policy enforcement. 

The district attorney is the attorney elected to represent the public interest in criminal cases. District attorneys are elected at the county level. They swear an oath to uphold the laws. Another word for district attorney is “prosecutor,” since they prosecute criminal cases. 

Other Words for Lawyer and Attorney

Perhaps because lawyers serve so many purposes, there are many different names for lawyers. 

In court, a judge may refer to the attorneys as “counsel,” or an attorney may call the other attorney “opposing counsel.”  Counsel, or councilor, is yet another word for a person who provides legal advice. 

Counsel connotes the lawyer’s role in offering guidance and wisdom. Lawyers are often consulted by clients who are considering a particular course of action. If you are considering taking action that may have legal consequences, it can help to talk to an attorney beforehand. 

An attorney who provides guidance about legal issues to a single company exclusively is called “in-house counsel.”  Lawyers employed as in-house counsel may or may not participate in litigation. 

The French word for lawyer, avocat, connotes yet another role held by lawyers: advocates. Advocacy means using resources to support a certain position. Lawyers use their knowledge, skill, and experience to represent the interests of their client’s position.