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Attorney versus Lawyer: What's the difference?

What IS the difference between an attorney and a lawyer?

I often wondered what the differences were between “Attorney” and “Lawyer.” I previously researched, and concluded, one was able to represent in you in court of law and one was not. Still being curious, I researched these “titles” again. My research notes that, historically, all attorneys were lawyers; but not all lawyers were attorneys. Most people use the two terms, Attorney/Lawyer, interchangeably. However, by definition and in respective responsibilities, they are vastly different. A multitude of information is available on these terms. A review of several state regulations, procedural requirements, and training/educational facilities/systems’ who use these terms made this research difficult in defining the two. So, I digress to my original research for the most part. (On a personal opinion – I believe if we continue to tear apart our use of defined roles and requirements, and not just attorney versus lawyer, we continue to breed chaos, confusion, inconsistency and incompetency. But please do continue to read my personal research below…)

The word “attorney” comes from an old French word “atorné” which means “(one) appointed,” technically to “act on the behalf of others”. This term is an abbreviated form of the formal title “attorney at law.” An attorney-at-law (attorney) is someone who is trained and educated in law AND has completed a process of: (1) taking and passing the state bar exam in the state they wish to practice law in; (2) became a member of bar association for the state they wish to practice law in; (3) passed additional testing/qualifying relating to their own person and professional character and fitness; (4) obtained the required license in/for each such court in which they represent any party(ies). Additionally, an attorney is able to provide legal advice. Webster defines “attorney-at-law” as a practitioner in a court of law who is legally qualified to prosecute and defend actions in such court on the retainer of clients.”[1]

The word “lawyer” has Middle English origins. It refers to someone educated and trained in law. Lawyers are people who have gone to law school and often may have taken and passed a bar exam.

I believe understanding the etymology of the labels of this profession may help someone understand the distinctions and qualifications of each. Personally, I like the distinctions between the definitions of a lawyer and an attorney. These distinctions assist in understanding the specific roles and duties of the two professions. (Secretaries, Legal Assistants, and Paralegals also have defined roles; but that is for another discussion) As I said, both attended law school, however, HOW they use their education varies. Examples are:

1. A lawyer may take on roles such as consultant or advisor. Some may choose to practice in a specialized field such as estate planning, immigration, or tax law, where they may give legal advice to clients.


2. An attorney may represent a client in a court of law (in a specific jurisdiction) because they obtained the required license in/for that particular court/jurisdiction. As mentioned earlier, such legal practitioner must have been qualified for that particular court. This is why you see the terms “admitted to practice in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana;” or “admitted to practice in U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District.” Obtaining the(se) license(s) is a requirement for an attorney, giving them the right to practice law in that specific jurisdiction. Further, and in using the Louisiana Supreme Court as an example for admission to the bar of the State of Louisiana and to therefore practice in this Court, Part B of the Rules of Supreme Court of Louisiana, Section 5 of Rule XVII. Admission to the Bar of the State of Louisiana, states in part:

"Character and Fitness.

(A) Public Policy. The primary purpose of character and fitness screening before admission to the Louisiana State Bar is to assure the protection of the public and to safeguard the administration of justice. The attorney licensing process is incomplete if only testing for minimal legal competence is undertaken. The public is adequately protected only by a system that evaluates character and fitness as those elements relate to the practice of law. The public interest requires that the public be secure in its expectation that those who are admitted to the Bar are worthy of the trust and confidence clients may reasonably place in their attorneys."

Additionally, these distinctions between the roles and duties of the two professions are important to understand for multiple reasons; such as billing/charges made by either, or would either be able to follow your matter all the way to litigation if necessary. As noted, both are formally trained and educated in law, but how someone uses this education and training is often a key difference between attorney and lawyer.

Lawyers may take on roles as consultants or advisors (thereby saving the costs of having to credentialize themselves in any court of law). Many choose to practice in a specialized field such as estate, immigration, or tax law, where they may give legal advice to clients.

An attorney is someone who chose to represent a client in court and, as stated, went through the expense and process of obtaining the specific license for a particular court, proving their competency to practice law in that specific jurisdiction.

There are many other labels, terms, definitions, used to refer to those who are educated in the legal profession. Some are used interchangeably as well, examples may be: Solicitor, Barrister, Advocate, Esquire, and Counselor; and there are notable differences between these terms as well. Briefly, mostly irrelevant locally, are:

Solicitor – someone practicing law in the U.K. and other countries. The term “solicitor” would refer to someone who practices law in more of an advisory capacity in administrative settings. In the U.K, solicitors will sometimes appear in court, especially lower courts. A solicitor will often prepare documents and cases for trial, but not present them. Although it is possible for them to appear in lower court hearings, it is more common for them to instruct a barrister to represent the client.

Barrister – again someone in the legal profession in the U.K. and other countries. Unlike solicitors, the primary duties of a barrister include the representation of their clients in court, especially in complex cases. Barristers must fulfill a specific set of educational and training requirements, including some traditional formalities and will need to have been admitted to the bar. Usually, a barrister will attend court hearings, tribunals and various other litigation processes to advocate for their client’s interests.

Esquire (Esq.) - is an honorary title generally given to someone who took and passed the bar exam and is licensed by their state bar association. I previously thought the term Esquire was reserved for males only. The term esquire has slowly faded out of use in Louisiana and I note it is typically used by “older” generations.

Advocate - In the United States, the word advocate is often used interchangeably with terms like attorney and lawyer and bears no special legal significance. I have, however, seen it used to state a person is advocating for another outside of actual “legal” “representation.”

Counsel/Of Counsel - is someone who gives legal advice. Though the term is sometimes used interchangeably with lawyer or attorney, it often specifically refers to someone who has been trained in law. This legal professional may work “in-house” for a particular organization, corporation or law firm.

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

Do you see now why it can be so confusing??


Esq. vs. J.D.: What are the Differences?

The titles Esq. and J.D. refer to someone who has completed law school. J.D. stands for Juris Doctor. Obtaining a J.D. proves the person has completed law school. Esq. stands for Esquire and this title typically signifies someone who completed law school and passed the bar exam. For both terms, there is some disagreement between states regarding the requirements for each title. As to the abbreviation Esq. used by some lawyers, it has no precise significance in the United States except as sometimes applied to certain public officials, i.e., justices of the peace or as a title of courtesy placed after a man’s surname and corresponding more ceremoniously to “Mister” (Mr.). For some reason, lawyers often add it to their surname in written address. However, it is a title used specifically by males with no female equivalent, so its use by lawyers is fading away.

[1]The term attorney-at-law is most DEFINITELY different than “attorney-in-fact”, which would be an entirely different blog. HINT “attorney-in-fact” means --- appointed … i.e., as in a power of attorney.

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