Attorney vs. lawyer?

An attorney is a lawyer that provides clients with legal representation. A lawyer is a legal practitioner that advises clients of their legal rights, but not all lawyers act as an attorney.

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What is the difference between an attorney and a lawyer?

Lawsuits. Jail sentences. DUIs.’ What do these terms all have in common? You’re going to need a lawyer. But when it comes to “legalese,” or the language of the law, do you need a lawyer or an attorney?

Some law professors say that all students are lawyers until they pass the American Bar Association (ABA) exam. But other professors say that lawyers give legal advice and attorneys litigate in court. So which is it?

Attorney vs. lawyer

In the broadest sense possible, the terms lawyer and attorney mean the same thing. A lawyer is a law practitioner with a Juris Doctor (JD) degree or a Doctor of Judicial Science (SDJ). The word attorney is shorthand for “attorney-at-law,” which is a lawyer that is legally appointed to a client to act on their behalf in the court of law. 

According to the ABA website, all lawyers must: 

  • Obtain a bachelor’s degree and graduate from an ABA-accredited law school.
  • Pass a state bar exam and a committee-run character and fitness review.
  • Swear an oath to protect the laws and constitutions of state and federal governments. 
  • Receive a license to practice law from the highest court in the state. 

To practice law in a particular state, a lawyer must hold credentials outlined by a state’s bar admissions. Once licensed, lawyers can file lawsuits for clients, advise clients of their rights and obligations, and speak on their behalf during legal proceedings. 

Unless stated otherwise, the term lawyer is synonymous with “attorney,” “attorney-at-law,” “counsel,” “counselor,” or “counselor-at-law.” 

When the “attorney” isn’t a lawyer

There are times when the term “attorney” applies to non-lawyers, such as an “attorney-in-fact,” an “attorney-of-record,” or a “patent attorney.” In this case, each title conveys stipulations that invoke “powers of attorney,” which is not the same thing as being a real lawyer.  

Understanding the powers of attorney

The “power of attorney” is a written or verbal agreement that allows an attorney-in-fact to act on their client’s behalf. An attorney-in-fact is an “agent” (non-lawyer) that is authorized to act on behalf of someone via powers of attorney.

In plain speech, you can appoint legal representation to someone that isn’t a lawyer through powers of attorney. The caveat is that an agent doesn’t have the same resources or privileges as an attorney-at-law

Depending on the circumstances and location, an attorney-in-fact is granted general, limited, or special powers of attorney:

  • General powers of attorney allow attorneys-in-fact to take any action their client can take, such as managing bank accounts, stock trades, or contractual rights. 
  • Limited powers of attorney are determined by the client, which means they decide what their attorney-in-fact may perform on their behalf. 
  • Special powers of attorney are appointed to qualified representatives to make decisions for a client that is incapacitated (e.g., a medical doctor). 

The technicalities around powers of attorney allow us to apply the term “attorney” to any agent that cannot practice law (with some grey areas, of course). For example, an attorney of record (or “counsel of record”) is either:
a. A lawyer that appears in court or receives formal documents on their client’s behalf, or;
b. A lawyer or agent appointed via power of attorney through a filed patent or trademark application. 

The latter stipulation clears the differences between a patent attorney and a patent agent: one is a lawyer, and the other is not. We bring up these technicalities because they illustrate how easy it is to use “attorney” for agents rather than lawyers

As a general rule of thumb: if you write the wordattorney,” make sure that you’re describing someone that is certified to practice law. An easy way to check is to look for the title “Esquire” or “ESQ” after an attorney’s surname. 

What does the word lawyer mean?

The term lawyer is a broad term for any licensed professional that practices law as an attorney, solicitor, or counsel. According to Black’s Law Dictionary, a lawyer is a law practitioner that:
a. Defends or prosecutes within courts of record or judicial tribunals in the United States, or;
b. Provides professional advice on legal matters.

The definition of lawyer varies by country, but the term always coincides with the “law practitioner.” So whether it’s an advocate, attorney, barrister, counselor, or solicitor, the title of “lawyer” applies as long as the representative is certified to practice law (with the exception of paralegals and patent agents). 

Synonyms of lawyer

Advocate, attorney, attorney-at-law, barrister, counsel, counselor, counselor-at-law, defender, jurist, legal eagle, mouthpiece, pleader, proctor, procurator, solicitor.  

Etymology of lawyer

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word lawyer entered the English Language in the 14th century as lauier, lawer, lawere. In all cases, the word incorporated Middle English lawe + -iere to mean, “one versed in law …” The spelling of “lawyer” with the letter y was not standard until the 17th century.

What does the word attorney mean?

An attorney is a lawyer or agent that is appointed and legally authorized to represent another person. The word attorney is short for “attorney-at-law,” but the term also applies to individuals that are not lawyers, such as certain attorneys-in-fact or attorneys-of-record

Synonyms of attorney

Agent, assignee, commissary, delegate, deputy, envoy, factor, minister, procurator, prosecutor, proxy, representative. 

Etymology of attorney

The word attorney entered the English Language in the 14th century from Old French atorné to mean ‘one that’s appointed by someone to act as their substitute.’

Types of attorneys and lawyers

Lawyers and attorneys come in all forms because they can practice specific types of law, such as: 

  • Corporate law (business law): rights, relations, and conduct of people, organizations, businesses, or corporations.
  • Criminal law: defense and prosecution within the criminal justice system. 
  • Constitutional law: the roles and powers of state and federal entities; civil rights; supreme court rulings. 
  • Environmental law: natural resources, land ownership, and environmental conservation. 
  • Tax law: constitutional, common, and statutory laws; tax treaties and regulations
  • Family law: human services, divorce, child custody, and child support. 
  • Health law: medical insurance, biomedical ethics, access to care, food and drug safety, disease prevention and treatment, etc. 
  • Immigration law: federal immigration laws, agencies, and practices. 
  • Insurance law: insurance policies, claims, regulations, and rates.
  • Commercial law (trade law): commerce, merchandise, trade, and sales. 

Because there are several fields to specialize in, there are also many types of lawyers or attorneys that exist. The most popular (and often lucrative) lawyer titles include: 

  • Corporate lawyer 
  • Tax attorney
  • Trial attorney 
  • Intellectual property attorney 
  • Medical lawyer 
  • Contracts lawyer
  • Immigration lawyer
  • Family lawyer
  • Personal injury lawyer
  • Litigation attorney
  • Employment lawyer

Where do lawyers and attorneys work?

A lawyer or attorney’s legal job title also depends on the entity they work for. In general, there are four types of practices that hire lawyers and attorneys

Private law firms

Law firms hire lawyers or attorneys as “associates” to provide legal services for businesses or private clients. 

Government agencies

Local, state, and government agencies hire attorneys to file lawsuits, seek justice on behalf of the government, write and interpret laws, and enforce regulations. 

Corporate counsels

Corporate counsels (or in-house counsels) consists of lawyers that serve a specific corporate entity. 

Private, nonprofit organizations

Private, nonprofit organizations hire lawyers to represent systematically disenfranchised individuals or entities for civil cases.

FAQs: Related to attorney vs. lawyer

What’s the difference between a public defender and a defense attorney?

A public defender is a court-appointed lawyer that represents and defends the accused when they cannot afford a private attorney. A defense attorney is a private attorney that a client chooses and finances out-of-pocket. 

The difference between a private defense attorney and a public defender is that local or federal governments pay for public defenders instead of the client. And because the court appoints public defenders, the defendant doesn’t get to choose their legal representation. 

Another big difference between private and public defense attorneys is that public defenders are often underpaid, overworked, and have less time to work on individual cases. Therefore, economically-disadvantaged citizens have a higher risk of losing their case. 

What’s the difference between a prosecuting attorney and a district attorney?

A district attorney (DA) is a lawyer that is elected by local government officials to represent state laws within a jurisdiction’s criminal court system. A district attorney is the same thing as a prosecuting attorney, county attorney, or state attorney, but a DA of the federal government is called a United States Attorney (appointed by the president, of course). 

What’s the difference between a trial attorney and a litigation attorney?

When people imagine a lawyer, they tend to envision a trial attorney: argumentative, theatrical, terrifying. But not all lawyers are trial attorneys. In fact, most cases don’t go to trial all, so the duties of a trial attorney are very specific: 

  • Legal representation of non-criminal cases
  • Providing opening and closing statements
  • Jury selection 
  • Communicating with a judge
  • Cross-examining witnesses

A trial attorney only works in the courtroom, but a litigation attorney works on non-criminal cases from start to finish. Litigation attorneys spend the majority of their time researching cases, communicating with clients and opposing counsels, handling legal documents, etc. 

Test Yourself!

The language of the law is sort of like a game of linguistic chess. Put your legal logic to the test with the following multiple-choice questions on attorney vs. lawyer

  1. As an “attorney-in-fact,” an agent is incapable of ______________.
    a. Managing finances
    b. The practice of law
    c. Selling stocks
    d. Invoking or waiving contractual rights
  2. Which of the following legal representatives are appointed by courts to represent members of the general public?
    a. Public attorneys
    b. Private attorneys
    c. Public defenders
    d. A and C
  3. The word “attorney” is of ________ origin
    a. American origin
    b. French origin
    c. Latin origin
    d. A and B
  4. Legal professionals that can practice law include ___________. 
    a. Paralegals
    b. Patent attorneys
    c. Patent agents
    d. A and C
  5. An attorney-client agreement that allows agents to represent clients and act on their behalf. 
    a. Fiduciary duty
    b. Common law
    c. Powers of attorney
    d. Law degree


  1. B
  2. A
  3. C
  4. B
  5. C

Photo sources:

  1. Tingey Injury Law Firm 
  2. Melinda Gimpel 
  3. Dariusz Sankowski 


  1. Attorney.” Black’s Law Dictionary, 2 ed., The Law Dictionary, n.d.
  2. Attorney.” Cambridge Dictionary, Cambridge University Press, 2020.
  3. Attorney.” Wex Legal Dictionary and Encyclopedia, Legal Information Institute at the Cornell Law School, 2020. 
  4. Attorney-in-fact.” Wex Legal Dictionary and Encyclopedia, Legal Information Institute at the Cornell Law School, 2020. 
  5. Attorney of record.” Wex Legal Dictionary and Encyclopedia, Legal Information Institute at the Cornell Law School, 2020. 
  6. Davis, Neal. “Should You Hire a Private Criminal Defense Attorney or a Public Defender?Neal Davis Law Firm, 5 Mar 2019. 
  7. District attorney.” Nolo’s Plain-English Law Dictionary, Nolo, 2020. 
  8. Harper, Douglas. “Lawyer.” Online Etymology Dictionary,, 2020. 
  9. Harper, Douglas. “Attorney.” Online Etymology Dictionary,, 2020. 
  10. Lawyer.” Cambridge Dictionary, Cambridge University Press, 2020.
  11. Lawyer.” Black’s Law Dictionary, 2 ed., The Law Dictionary, n.d.
  12. Potter Burnett Law. “The Imperative Difference Between Trial Lawyers and Litigators.” Potter Burnett Attorneys at Law, 6 Mar 2018. 
  13. Power of attorney.” Wex Legal Dictionary and Encyclopedia, Legal Information Institute at the Cornell Law School, 2020. 
  14. Public defender.” Nolo’s Plain-English Law Dictionary, Nolo, 2020. “What is a lawyer?American Bar Association, ABA, 10 Sept 2019.