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Attorney vs Lawyer: What Are the Differences?

In the United States, the terms lawyer and attorney are often used interchangeably. For this reason, people in and out of the legal field often ask, “is an attorney and a lawyer the same thing?”.

In colloquial speech, the specific requirements necessary to be considered a lawyer vs attorney aren’t always considered. Though in everyday speech these terms usually refer to the same person, there are distinctions that law students should be aware of.

Understanding the difference between a lawyer and an attorney is important for anyone interested in earning a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree. Whether you are wondering how to become a lawyer or an attorney in court, having the correct definition of each term may help to guide your career decisions.

Attorney vs Lawyer: Comparing Definitions

Understanding the etymology of both terms can help you understand the distinction between attorney vs lawyer. Though both terms refer to someone who is educated in law, understanding the technical definitions brings the differences between lawyer and attorney to light.

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.

Attorney vs Lawyer: Differences in Roles and Duties

Like the distinction between the definition of lawyer vs attorney, the distinctions between the roles and duties of the two professions are important to understand. As noted, both are formally trained and educated in law, but how someone uses their education and training is often a key difference between attorney and lawyer. 

Though a lawyer is someone who has completed law school and passed the bar exam, you don’t have to practice law in court to be considered a lawyer. Lawyers may take on roles as consultants or advisors. Many choose to practice in a specialized field such as estate law, immigration law, or tax law, where they may give legal advice to clients.

As an attorney, you practice law in court. Passing the bar exam is a requirement for an attorney, giving them the right to practice law in a specific jurisdiction. Like lawyers, attorneys are required to abide by a code of ethics and may practice in both civil and criminal courts.

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