Attorney v lawyer

he term ‘lawyer’ is often used to refer to a broad spectrum of legal professionals. Generally speaking, though, a lawyer is anyone who has been trained in law. Anyone who has attended law school, and attained anLLB (Bachelor of Laws) degree, is a lawyer.

What this means is that if you are only a lawyer, without any additional qualifications or professional designations, you cannot represent a client in a court of law. What your legal training does qualify you for is acting as a legal consultant or policy advisor, or giving legal advice.


To become an attorney, you first need to complete your theoretical legal training (i.e. your LLB degree). You can then do your articles (a form of internship) with a practicing attorney for a specific period of time. Once you finish your articles, you need to write a Board Exam. If you pass, you can apply to the High Court to be admitted as an attorney.

An attorney can specialise as a conveyancer, patent attorney, litigator, and more. He or she can, in certain circumstances, represent clients in a court of law. While all attorneys can be referred to as lawyers, all lawyers are not necessarily attorneys.


An advocate is a specialist lawyer who represents clients in a court of law. Unlike an attorney, an advocate does not deal directly with the client – the attorney refers the client to an advocate when the situation requires it. While attorneys can only represent clients in the lower courts in South Africa, advocates can appear on behalf of clients in the higher courts as well.

To become an advocate, one has tobecome a member of the General Council of the Bar.


As neatly as the different roles are set out here, in reality it can become somewhat confusing. This is largely due to the fact that the differences are often technical, and professional duties can overlap in practice​.Another source of confusion is that in different countries there are not only different rules for entering the different professions, but also different titles.

6.4k Views · View Upvoters
Promoted by Atlassian

The journey begins with curiosity.
Explore the curious world of Jira Service Desk. This champion shows you the ropes. No need to be afraid.
Learn more at community.atlassian.
Related QuestionsMore Answers Below
What is the difference between a lawyer and a consultant?
Are you an «attorney» or a «lawyer?»
What is the difference between an advocate and a lawyer?
What is the difference between attorneys and counselors?
What is the difference between a trustee and a lawyer?
Ask New Question

Carl Franklin
Carl Franklin, JD & PhD, retired professor of law and public policy.
Answered Jul 7, 2015
That is both an easy and complex question, so let’s do easy first.
As a rule, in the United States the terms lawyer and attorney are interchangeable.

Now for the hard answer. It’s hard because we have to go back a bit in history to understand the distinctions. The term “lawyer” was generally used to refer to any person who has studied and been trained in the law. The lawyers of the early US nationhood are a good example. Someone like John Adams or Thomas Jefferson were not only leaders of the American Revolution but they also were lawyers.

An interesting note on Adams career is that he actually provided a learned, principled and successful defense of the British Soldiers accused of crimes arising from the “Boston Massacre.” His reason was the same that many criminal defense attorneys cite today for their own careers. Every person, no matter how they are seen by the general public, deserves a zealous and competent defense (something we now find in the 6th Amendment of the Constitution).

As education in the US improved, and law began to become its own discipline, the term attorney at law (also attorney-at-law) was created around 1768. For a short time there was an effort to distinguish to two terms. The lawyer was one who studied and graduated after studying law, however, they were not necessarily seen as someone who had passed the bar; therefore they did not “practice law” before a court.
Even today we see that one can graduate from an American law school, thus becoming a lawyer, but not passing the bar exam. Without the passing score on the bar exam one can’t be admitted to practice law in the jurisdiction (state or federal).

The attorney at law, which was later shortened to just attorney, was used in some instances to mean a professional who is qualified to give legal advise and to represent a party in court.
Eventually, the early form of the law degree (which was considered a professional degree much like that for the ministry or medicine) evolved to a point that it would require a much higher level of education in order to be reasonably qualified.

Today, the terms attorney and lawyer are used interchangeably, mostly because the need to distinguish the right to practice law became so well defined with the expansion of the individual jurisdictions judicial system and also because the qualifying degree today to sit for the bar exam is a professional doctorate degree; usually the Juris Doctorate or JD.

There are still those who graduate from law school but never sit for the bar exam. The law degree is an excellent degree which can be used in many areas of business and government work other than the practice of law. Thus, the concept that one is a lawyer by virtue of the law degree still exists, it is just not enforced at enthusiastically as in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Your feedback is private.
Is this answer still relevant and up to date?
Evan Lee
Evan Lee, former Professor at University of California, Hastings College of the Law (1989-2017)
Answered May 3, 2018 · Author has 623 answers and 110.3k answer views
In the United States, these two terms are often used interchangeably. The dictionary definitions are broad enough to support this usage.

Personally, I define “lawyer” as anyone who has a Juris Doctor degree (what used to be the “Bachelors in Law” degree). That’s the standard degree for practicing law in the United States. (Foreign lawyers who want to practice in the U.S. get a “Masters in Law” degree — they of course are lawyers too.)

Some J.D.s never take or pass the bar exam, meaning they may not practice law. In my view, they are still lawyers.

I define an “attorney” as anyone who represents someone else in a legal matter. Thus, there are non-lawyers who act as “attorneys-in-fact” for limited legal purposes, such as signing documents. Same with non-lawyers who are given “power of attorney” for a particular matter.

An “attorney-at-law” would be the same thing as a “lawyer,” but the term “attorney” by itself encompasses lawyers and non-lawyers. That’s my view, anyway.

686 Views · View Upvoters · Answer requested by Reganold O. Beese
Shivi Gupta
Shivi Gupta, Lawyer| Writer
Updated Jan 25, 2018 · Author has 215 answers and 399.5k answer views
Stuck with a legal issue? Got suggestions from people to consult a lawyer or attorney for your problem? Wondering whether the two are any different? Here’s your answer!

The words ‘lawyer’ and ‘attorney’ are used interchangeably in every field of law whether it is the commercial, corporate, personal, or contract law. However, this does not change the fact that these two words differ on various grounds.
What Qualifies Someone as an Attorney?
An attorney at law or attorney-at-law is typically abbreviated to attorney in everyday conversation. An attorney is considered the official name for a lawyer in the United States. The first known use of the term attorney-at-law was in 1768.

An attorney-at-law is defined 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. The English word attorney has French origins, meaning “a person acting for another as an agent or deputy.” An attorney actually practices law in court whereas a lawyer may or may not. An attorney has passed the bar exam and has been approved to practice law in his jurisdiction.Court Pillars

Although the terms often operate as synonyms, an attorney is a lawyer but a lawyer is not necessarily an attorney. To the general public, these terms may be used interchangeably but to the American Bar Association, the slight distinction is significant.

Other Common Law Terms of Distinction
In other common law jurisdictions around the world such as England and Wales, more specific distinctions are drawn. There, they differentiate between those who practice law in court and those who do not by the use of terms such as solicitors, barristers, and advocates. In other countries, public notaries are also distinguished from attorneys.

A solicitor is a lawyer who deals with any legal matter. Typically, they don’t appear in court but prepare legal documents and work directly with clients providing legal advice. Historically, the term solicitor was used in the United States. It was referred to lawyers who handled cases in a court of equity. Whereas attorneys, at that time, only dealt with cases in a court of law.

On the other hand, barristers are called upon by solicitors if their case requires a court appearance. A barrister doesn’t work directly with clients but receives referrals from solicitors who are often retained by their clients. The solicitor will assist the barrister with all preparations for the case outside of court. Although this is not always the case, an advocate is another term for barrister in many English-law based jurisdictions.

The Professional Title Esquire
An additional term used is esquire. It is employed at the end of an attorney’s name, abbreviated as Esq. Its purpose is to give an honorary title. Similar to the use of the abbreviations Dr. or Ph.D., it also signifies a professional title. Its origins are in England where the title was once reserved for males, as a term of respect for those of high social rank.

Esquire is a title one may tack on without the approval of the American Bar Association or any other legal entity. Therefore, it can be somewhat controversial. Some have added it to their names without having obtained the actual qualifications. This gives the false perception of their ability to legally practice law. Therefore, it serves to be cautious and not presumptuous when encountering this term.