There are approximately 1.3 million active attorneys in the United States of America.
We’re all familiar with the general idea of what attorneys do. We’re also familiar with what lawyers do. In fact, for the average person, these two terms are used interchangeably.
How many of us consider the differences between an attorney vs lawyer?
Well, to be fair, if you’re here, you probably are. So let’s address that curiosity with some answers!
Attorney vs Lawyer: A Matter of Semantics?
In the United States, the two terms are almost synonymous. However, in other countries, it isn’t always the case. In India for example, there is a clear distinction between a lawyer and an attorney or even an advocate.
If you want to get technical, there is a difference between the two. But as far as usage goes, there isn’t.
The main difference is the element of the qualification. Consequent to that, with qualifications, come corresponding duties.
Let’s explore a few of these differences under greater detail down below.
Who Qualifies as a Lawyer?
A lawyer is someone who has a law degree. It is someone who’s dedicated a part of their life to the specialized study of law. They may give advice on legal issues, or even conduct research in related fields.
However, they are not technically qualified to practice law. This means they do not necessarily have a qualifying license that enables them to legally represent another party in the court of law.
In a nutshell, they are educated in the field, but cannot represent you in court in the same way an attorney can.
So how is an attorney different?
Who Qualifies as an Attorney?
An attorney or an attorney-at-law is someone who has both, the education or law degree as well as the license to practice law.
They have the legally recognized power to prosecute, plead, represent, and defend someone else in court.
To get this license, you have to pass the bar exam. Typically someone who is only a lawyer would not have passed this exam. You can sum this up by saying all attorneys are lawyers, but all lawyers are not attorneys.
For example, if you’re in a car accident and you require legal advice, you may quite likely be able to get it from a lawyer or an attorney. However, if you want someone to represent you in court, you would need a personal injury attorney.
Let’s take a look at what the implications of these qualifications are.
Duties of a Lawyer
A lawyer doesn’t necessarily need to pass the bar to give legal advice. They could be legal consultants to a company, or work with the government.
If you’re simply seeking a better understanding of the law, a lawyer would be qualified to give you legal advice. Lawyers could even specialize in a particular field.
For example, a tax lawyer would be able to advise you on your financial matters. Whereas, an estate lawyer would be able to help you with your will.
However, these are more a reflection of what they could do and not necessarily what they should do. In some cases, the element of lawyer-client confidentiality does come into play, but it also depends on a lot of additional elements. It is not as straightforward as the relationship between an attorney and a client.
Duties of an Attorney
Someone who has passed the bar would also have taken an oath. Going against this oath would amount to malpractice. There is a code of conduct to be followed.
Once an attorney takes on a client, it is their duty to uphold “attorney-client privilege“. It is perhaps, the most important obligation of an attorney.
They must also have the client’s best interest at heart. On signing a “Power of Attorney”, a client gives an attorney or a law the right to act in their best interest. This could include financial, medical, and legal interest.
An attorney’s duties will depend heavily upon the agreement between them and their client. Some clients might even give their attorneys the right to oversee the distribution of their estate upon their death.
Like lawyers, attorneys usually specialize in a particular field of law. You have criminal defense attorneys, personal injury attorneys, immigration attorneys, and hundred other specializations.
Depending on your case and the jurisdiction within which your case falls, you would choose an attorney accordingly.
You’ve also probably heard of other words like solicitor and barrister thrown around. So what do they mean? Can solicitors and barristers be considered attorneys or lawyers?
A barrister is someone who offers specialized legal advice. They may also represent clients in court.
A solicitor is generally a legal practitioner within one or more specific areas of law. They can provide legal advice, draft, and take care of legal documentation.
Earlier the terms were relatively distinct in their implications. A barrister was associated with an attorney and a solicitor was associated with a lawyer.
However, now, the lines between the terminology we use are more blurred than ever. A solicitor may even obtain the rights to represent someone in court.
Finding a Good Attorney
All this talk of the distinction between an attorney vs lawyer is moot if you don’t know where or how to find one.
The answer is simple. Do your research, make sure that anyone who is representing you has a license and is well versed with the laws of the state their practicing in.
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