A Google search for the term ‘Attorney’ will return you around 533 million results – give or take a million or so. A similar search for ‘Lawyer’ returns 640 million. So, within the 100 million region they two can be regarded in search terms as largely similar in terms of online search popularity.
But the actual difference between ‘lawyer’ and ‘attorney’ is one that has frequently arisen in queries we have received at LawFuel and it is an important distinction for the lay person to understand.
In essence, an ‘attorney’ is also a ‘lawyer’ in the commonly understood use of the term. However, the reverse is not quite the same. The two terms, in other words, are not interchangeable, as other dictionary definitions point out.
What IS a Lawyer?
In general, ‘lawyer’ is a more generic term that encompasses the various forms of law handled by those with law degrees. This is generally the same across multiple jurisdictions that use both terms.
NOLO’s legal dictionary, has no listed definition for “lawyer,” but you are directed to “attorney,” being the common, US description for ‘lawyer’.
In the United States, an ‘attorney’ is a ‘lawyer’ and the term denotes the same thing. However in other jurisdictions, such as the United Kingdom, Australia and others, an ‘attorney’ will generally be someone who has more limited legal responsibility, particularly as a trade mark ‘attorney’, for instance. In those countries, at attorney is not someone who is generally spoken of as a lawyer, but rather one of those (no offence intended) sub-species of lawyer.
The term ‘attorney’ comes form the French meaning, being ‘one appointed or constituted’ and is meaning a person acting on behalf of another as an agent or deputy.
In several jurisdictions there will be those imbued with ‘power of attorney’, which provides exactly the sort of ‘agent or deputy’ representation encompassed with the French definition.
Barristers vs. solicitors
In common law jurisdictions like the UK, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere there are barristers, who provide court representation for clients (but they are also in a general sense properly called ‘lawyers’). And there are also ‘solicitors’, who handle other legal work and although they are generally perfectly able to also appear in court and conduct litigation, will instead frequently instruct a barrister to do so.
Solicitors too can be regarded quite properly as ‘lawyers’. Once again, the term ‘lawyer’ is used as an umbrella term encompassing barristers, solicitors and attorneys.
The US ‘Attorney’ vs. ‘Lawyer’
In the United States, attorneys are those who have qualified in law. The term is actually a shortened version of attorney-at-law. Like a ‘lawyer’, who has graduated from law school, they practice law but they need to also pass the bar examination and be able to practice law in court to be called ‘attorney’.
There is therefore a greater distinction in the United States between ‘lawyer vs. attorney’ by virtue of the qualification level and permission to practice law in court. Hence while every attorney may be called a lawyer, not every lawyer can be called an attorney.
What About ‘Counsel’?
Counsel can refer to a single lawyer or a group of lawyers who handle work for a client. The term is really a synonym for lawyers and attorneys handling legal work and thus is yet another potential ‘disrupter’ for those seeking to clarify the different meanings. Counsel, however, is a more descriptive and less prescriptive term without particular professional significance for the layman to understand.
Commonly, you will hear references in Courtroom dramas where an opposing lawyer will be referred to as ‘Counsel’, and this is a descriptive title for that person as a lawyer. Similarly, there will be references to ‘counsel’ who represent a corporation or some other entity, and this will be a reference to the legal entity representing that client.
Final Words on Attorney vs. Lawyer
The attorney vs. lawyer issue will doubtless continue for some time as many are confused about the various levels of lawyer and the titles that attach to them, however it is not necessarily a particularly complex question – just one with typically legal nuances creating often subtle differences in meaning.
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