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What Is The Difference Between A Lawyer And An Attorney? Can The Two Terms Be Used Interchangeably?


You’ve probably heard the words “attorney” and “lawyer” before when referring to someone who assists and represents you in legal matters. And, although used interchangeably by the general public, the two words don’t actually refer to the same thing.

The word “attorney” actually has French origins and means, “one appointed or consulted”. In English, the full title is attorney-at law. So, all together, the title essentially means a person who is appointed or consulted for purposes relating to the law. However, this definition doesn’t do much in the way of differentiating attorneys and lawyers. The main difference between the two is trial experience. Attorneys must pass the bar exam and be approved for practicing law by their jurisdiction. In other words, attorneys are legally qualified to represent a client in court and thus have trial experience. This is not quite the case for lawyers. Lawyers refer to someone who has not yet passed the bar exam, and thus can not represent a client in a courtroom. Because the lawyer can only provide legal counsel and not act on behalf of a client in a courtroom, lawyers have no trial experience.

Another way to look at the two positions is that all attorneys are lawyers, but not all lawyers are attorneys (at least, not yet). Typically speaking, most lawyers are working towards becoming attorneys, and have simply not passed the bar exam yet. This is because the bar exam is very difficult and may take some lawyers years to pass it. In this time before they are allowed to represent a client in court, lawyers work on the consultation side of legal proceedings. This is not to say that you should always hire an attorney over a lawyer. Lawyers have still received their Juris Doctorate from law school and often specialize in field matters that don’t see courtrooms as often.

Some lawyers never even plan to take the bar exam because they can specialize in field matters like immigration law, estate planning (wills, assets, trusts, etc.), and tax law, that rarely see a courtroom. Legal advice from a long-time lawyer practicing in these tricky fields will be much more informed and useful than simply picking an attorney because they have trial experience. It is always important to pick the legal professional that is best for your specific case. If you don’t want to go to court, why limit yourself only to attorneys?

The general public does not know the distinction between lawyers and attorneys. Most think they are synonyms and can be used interchangeably, thus the reason why you may now see the words used incorrectly. For example, someone may write about how a lawyer interrogated a witness, which you now know is incorrect because only attorneys may practice in the courtroom. For the most part, this common mistake is harmless. However, when looking for someone to represent you in front of the law, it is very important to know the abilities and qualifications of the person you are choosing. Hopefully, with this important distinction now learned, you are able to quickly and effectively find the legal practitioner best for your case.

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