What Are the Differences Between Attorney and Lawyer ?

The legal profession offers a wide range of rewarding and taxing job options. There are two popular ways to enter this field: as an attorney or as a lawyer. Many distinctions exist between these two professions, despite their many similarities. We’ll go through the differences between an attorney and a lawyer in this post, as well as several other legal careers you might want to consider.

What is an attorney?

An attorney is a licensed lawyer in their state who has completed law school and passed the state bar exam. An attorney can represent their clients in court as their legal representative.

While an attorney’s primary responsibility is to represent their clients, they are also responsible for interpreting and applying federal and state laws, as well as documenting all interactions with both clients and other legal experts.

What is a lawyer?

One who has completed legal education, such as law school, is referred to as a lawyer. Even while they can provide other people legal advice, they are unable to represent clients in court as they have not yet taken the bar test themselves.

While studying for the bar exam, some aspiring lawyers work as paralegals at a law office. Others prefer to work as a consultant or a government advisor without having to take the bar exam and seek a career as an attorney.

What is the difference between a lawyer and an attorney?

As a reminder, all attorneys are lawyers, but not every lawyer is an attorney. Attorneys have the ability to represent their clients in court and other legal processes, whereas lawyers do not have this ability.

Differences Between Attorney and Lawyer

Main Differences Between a Lawyer and an Attorney

An attorney is always a lawyer, but a lawyer isn’t always an attorney. Here’s why:

  • Anyone who has graduated from law school could be called a lawyer.
  • An attorney must have graduated from law school, passed the bar, and will practice law in court.
  • Lawyers often give legal advice and don’t practice law in court.

Similarities Between Lawyers and Attorneys

It’s the same education requirements for both lawyers and attorneys to practice law in the United States. A J.D. degree from a law school accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA) is often necessary. These are post-graduate courses of study.

Lawyers who have passed the bar exam and are allowed to represent clients and cases in a court of law are referred to as attorneys.

Education and licensure

This pair of professionals can be distinguished by the manner they approach their education. A lawyer may or may not have taken and passed the bar test, but an attorney has.

An examination of legal concepts and state-specific laws is given by the state’s bar association in the form of the bar exam. In most cases, the exam lasts two or three days, and preparing for it requires a significant amount of time.

Both lawyers and attorneys have completed their legal education at the University of Law. In law school, students learn about federal and state statutes, court precedents, and how to apply logic and analysis to specific client situations and issues.

Students who complete law school receive a Juris Doctor (JD) degree in the majority of situations. Many lawyers and attorneys hold a degree in this field.

Master of Laws (LLM) degrees also exist, and they provide international recognition for those who possess them. An LLM program’s curriculum is determined by the university that offers it.

Other courses include human rights law, international environmental law or intellectual property law, among others, while others focus on a broader range of legal topics.


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

Although law school provides a general overview of all the areas of the law, lawyers and attorneys go through additional training and education in their area of focus to gain more experience and knowledge. Attorneys typically only consult with and provide their services to clients whose cases pertain to their chosen field of law.

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.  

Differences Between Attorney and Lawyer

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.

Job titles

There are several paths for both lawyers and attorneys to pursue.

For lawyers, some paths include legal consultants and legal regulatory specialists. Lawyers may find employment in corporations, government agencies or nonprofit organizations. Some may choose to pursue a career in education as well.

For attorneys, several career paths are influenced by a professional’s specialization, location, level of experience and professional goals.

Jobs for lawyers

Here are some careers you might consider as a lawyer.

National average salary: $61,702 per year

Primary duties: A legal officer monitors all the legal affairs within an organization, handling both internal and external affairs and concerns.

The main duties include providing legal advice, performing research, processing and developing legal documents and identifying potential risks to the organization.

2. Lawyer

National average salary: $70,294 per year

Primary duties: Lawyers provide legal advice to others, including individuals, businesses and government agencies. They may also interpret rulings, regulations and laws and prepare legal documents.

National average salary: $122,618 per year

Primary duties: A legal counsel lawyer provides guidance and advice for a corporation or organization. They serve as the in-house legal compliance resource, as well as aid the members of the organization in all legal-related needs.

Jobs for attorneys

Here are some common careers you can pursue as an attorney.

1. Staff attorney

National average salary: $58,966 per year

Primary duties: A staff attorney works for a specific organization as a member of its staff and is responsible for managing the legal services needed by that company. Duties include performing analysis and research of legal issues and laws, providing training for professional development, managing contracts and employment agreements and protecting an organization’s legal rights.

2. Litigation attorney

National average salary: $104,341 per year

Primary duties: A litigation attorney represents their clients in court cases, mediations, administrative law proceedings and arbitrations. They spend their time preparing to present cases in court, as well as reviewing past cases, preparing paperwork, meeting with new clients and handling complex legal needs.

3. Patent attorney

National average salary: $171,571 per year

Primary duties: A patent attorney helps inventors negotiate for and obtain the legal rights to their inventions. They inform their clients on what is included within their intellectual property and they often draft patent applications. They may also represent their clients in cases of patent infringement.

Differences Between Attorney and Lawyer

Other Similar Law Terms

There are other terms that refer to professionals who are similar to lawyers and attorneys. Solicitor, barrister, advocate, esquire, and counsel are all terms that relate to legal professions. There are notable differences between these terms.

Solicitor. Solicitor is a term specific to professionals practicing law in the United Kingdom and other countries. The term solicitor refers to someone who practices law in a primarily administrative and client-facing setting. However, solicitors sometimes appear in court, especially lower courts. 

Barrister. Barrister is another term referring to a legal professional in the United Kingdom and other parts of the world. Unlike solicitors, the primary duties of a barrister include representing clients in court, especially in complex cases. Barristers must fulfill a specific set of educational and training requirements, including some traditional formalities.

Esquire. Esquire, often abbreviated to Esq., is an honorary title generally given to someone who has taken and passed the bar exam and is licensed by their state’s bar association. The term Esq. or Esquire will often appear on business cards, resumes, or signatures, following the name of someone who has met the necessary requirements. 

Advocate. The term advocate has different definitions in different countries. In the United States, the word advocate is often used interchangeably with terms like attorney and lawyer and bears no special legal significance. 

Counsel. The term legal counsel is a general term for someone who gives legal advice. Though the term is sometimes used interchangeably with lawyer or attorney, it often specifically refers to someone who is trained in law, and who works in-house for an organization or corporation.Attorney vs Lawyer vs Counsel: What are the Differences?

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

The titles J.D. and Esq. both refer to someone who has completed law school. J.D. stands for Juris Doctor, and signifies that someone has completed law school and earned their J.D. degree. Esq. stands for Esquire and this title typically signifies that someone has both completed law school and passed the bar exam. For both terms, there is some disagreement between states regarding the requirements for each title.

In the United States, the terms attorney and lawyer are frequently considered synonyms. The two terms are often used interchangeably—but there are some differences to understand if you are considering law school, preparing for the bar exam, or embarking on a career in law. 

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