If you are looking for legal advice or representation, you may have come across the terms lawyer and attorney. While these terms are often used interchangeably, they are not exactly the same. In this article, we will explain the difference between a lawyer and an attorney, and why it matters for your legal needs.
What is a lawyer?
A lawyer is someone who has been educated in the law and has completed law school. They can provide legal advice to others, but they cannot represent clients in court because they have not passed the bar exam. Some lawyers work under attorneys to gain experience in a law firm setting while preparing to take the bar exam. Others choose not to pursue a career as an attorney and work as a consultant or a government advisor without having to take the bar exam.
To become a lawyer, one must obtain a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university, and then enroll in a law school that is approved by the American Bar Association (ABA). Law school typically lasts three years and covers various topics, such as constitutional law, civil procedure, contracts, torts, criminal law, property law, and ethics. After graduating from law school, one must earn a Juris Doctor (JD) degree, which is the most common degree for lawyers in the United States.
What is an attorney?
An attorney is someone who has graduated from law school and passed the bar exam in the state in which they practice law. In this role, an attorney can act as the legal representation for their clients in a court of law. Additional duties of an attorney include interpreting federal and state laws, applying their knowledge of the law to meet the needs of their clients and keeping careful records that outline their interactions with clients and other legal professionals.
To become an attorney, one must follow the same steps as a lawyer, but also take and pass the bar exam. The bar exam is administered by the state’s bar association and includes questions that test the knowledge of state-specific laws and general legal principles. The exam typically spans two or three days and takes a lot of time to prepare. Passing the bar exam allows one to obtain a license to practice law in that state.
What is the difference between a lawyer and an attorney?
It is helpful to remember that all attorneys are lawyers, but not all lawyers are attorneys. The major difference is that attorneys can represent clients in court and other legal proceedings, while lawyers cannot. This means that if you need someone to defend you in a lawsuit, negotiate a contract, file a patent, or handle any other legal matter that requires court appearance or litigation, you need an attorney, not just a lawyer.
Another difference is that attorneys have more responsibilities and obligations than lawyers. For example, attorneys must follow the rules of professional conduct set by their state bar association, which regulate their competence, diligence, confidentiality, loyalty, communication, fees, conflicts of interest, and malpractice. Attorneys who violate these rules may face disciplinary actions, such as suspension or disbarment. Lawyers who are not licensed to practice law do not have to abide by these rules.
Why does it matter?
The difference between a lawyer and an attorney matters because it affects your legal rights and options. Depending on your situation, you may need either a lawyer or an attorney to help you with your legal issue. Here are some examples of when you may need one or the other:
- You may need a lawyer if you want to get general legal advice or information about your rights and obligations under the law. For instance, you may consult a lawyer if you want to learn more about estate planning, immigration laws, business formation, or intellectual property rights.
- You may need an attorney if you want to get specific legal services or representation for your case or transaction. For example, you may hire an attorney if you want to draft a will or trust, apply for citizenship or visa, start or dissolve a business entity, or register or enforce a trademark or patent.
- You may also need an attorney if you want to file a lawsuit or defend yourself against one. For instance, you may need an attorney if you want to sue someone for personal injury, breach of contract, defamation, or discrimination. Likewise, you may need an attorney if someone sues you for any of these reasons.
In conclusion, while the terms lawyer and attorney are often used interchangeably, there are subtle differences between them. A lawyer is someone who has completed law school and is licensed to practice law. An attorney is someone who has passed the bar exam and can represent clients in court. Knowing these differences can help you choose the right professional for your legal needs.