What is the Difference Between a Lawyer and an Attorney?

Hossein Berenji, Jan 03, 2020

In the United States, the terms lawyer and attorney are used interchangeably. This is particularly true on TV or in movies, where both titles are used to describe legal professionals who are representing others in court. However, there are slight differences in these titles even though they are commonly used as synonyms.

If someone wants to be a lawyer or an attorney, they must first learn the law and become an expert. A person cannot just declare themselves to be either an attorney or a lawyer. Rather, they must work and study for both titles.

What is a Lawyer?

In general, a person can call themselves a lawyer after they have graduated from an accredited law school. At graduation, the student receives their J.D. degree. This degree gives them the “lawyer” status and designates that the person is a legal expert because they have graduated from law school.

Many lawyers continue their legal studies and earn their LLM, MBA, or Ph.D. in more concentrated fields. These individuals can then become professors or legal consultants.

The title of lawyer does not mean that the person has passed a bar exam or has a membership with a state bar. This is the main distinction between being an attorney or a lawyer. This means that a lawyer may or may not be licensed to practice law or represent clients in court.

Regardless of whether a lawyer has a license to practice law, they will have extensive legal knowledge. While they may not be able to take a case to court before a judge, they can give legal advice if it is in their field.

What is an Attorney?

An attorney is also generally someone who has graduated from an accredited law school. This means that if someone is an attorney, they can also call themselves a lawyer. However, it is not always true the other way around. A lawyer cannot call themselves an attorney unless they have also passed a bar exam and are licensed by a bar association.

Once an attorney is licensed by a bar association, they can use the title Esquire. This indicates that they are a barred attorney who can legally practice law. A lawyer who has not passed a bar exam or been accepted by a bar association cannot use this title. An attorney/Esquire can represent clients in court before judges and has a current license to practice law.

For example, let’s say you’re thinking about getting a divorce. You could turn to a lawyer for some preliminary advice or assistance. They might even be able to help you mediate the dissolution. However, if you needed to take the matter to court, say to fight for child custody, you’d have to enlist the help of a licensed family law attorney.

 How To Study the Law

There are several steps to qualify as a lawyer or attorney. The first is to complete your education. In the U.S., this means getting an undergraduate degree and then attending law school. After this, a student will sit for one or more exams to show that they understand the law. Finally, once these steps have been completed, the individual must apply and be accepted for membership in a state bar association.

After attending and graduating from law school, a student needs to decide if they want to take the bar exam. In most states, there is a rigorous process to apply to sit for the bar exam. To qualify, the applicant usually has to submit numerous documents and have an interview. For example, in California, all individuals must pass a background check and receive a positive moral character determination before they can take the exam.

The next step is studying for the bar exam. This test can be extremely difficult to pass and focuses on state law. Many companies offer full-time in-depth courses that last several months and lead up to the actual test. The bar exam can be several days long. Depending on the state, other qualifying exams may be required. In California, individuals need to pass both the bar exam and the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination before they can go any further.

The final step is being admitted to a bar. Generally, people seek membership to a state bar association in the same state they passed the bar exam in. Admission to a state bar means that the person is able to legally practice law in that particular state. If they want to practice in a different state they will need to either sit for an additional bar exam or apply to a state where there is reciprocity for licensed attorneys. Again, a person must apply for membership in a bar. Once accepted, the person can remain active or can file for inactive status if they do not plan to work as a licensed attorney in the near future.