Attorney vs. lawyer: what are the differences?

In the United States, the terms “lawyer and “attorney are often used interchangeably. For this reason, people might wonder, “are an attorney and a lawyer the same thing?”

Though in everyday speech these terms might refer to the same person, there are distinctions that law students should be aware of.

Understanding the difference between a lawyer and an attorney is important for anyone interested in earning a Juris Doctor (JD) degree. Whether you are wondering how to become a lawyer or an attorney in court, having the correct definition of each term can help to guide your career decisions.

Attorney vs. lawyer: comparing definitions

Though both terms refer to someone who is educated in law, exploring the etymology can help you understand the distinction between attorney vs. lawyer.

The word “lawyer” has Middle English origins, and refers to someone who is educated and trained in law. Lawyers are people who have gone to law school and often may have taken and passed the bar exam.

“Attorney” has French origins, and stems from a word meaning to act on behalf or in the interest of others. The term attorney is an abbreviated form of the formal title “attorney at law.” An attorney is someone who is not only trained and educated in law, but also practices it in court. A basic definition of an attorney is someone who acts as a practitioner in a court of law.

Attorney vs. lawyer: differences in roles and duties

Like the distinction between the definition of lawyer vs. attorney, the differences between the roles and duties of the two professions are important to understand. Both are formally trained and educated in law, but how someone uses their education and training is often a key difference between attorney and lawyer. 

Though a lawyer is someone who has completed law school and passed the bar exam, you don’t have to practice law in court to be considered a lawyer. Lawyers may take on roles as consultants or advisors. Many choose to practice in a specialized field such as estate law, immigration law, or tax law, where they give legal advice to clients. 

As an attorney, you practice law in court. Passing the bar exam is a requirement for an attorney, giving them the right to practice law in a specific jurisdiction. Attorneys are required to abide by a code of ethics and may practice in both civil and criminal courts.

Other similar law terms

There are other terms that refer to professionals with similar responsibilities to lawyers and attorneys. Solicitor, barrister, advocate, esquire, and counsel are all terms that relate to legal professions. There are notable differences between them.

Solicitor. Solicitor is a term specific to professionals practicing law in the United Kingdom and other countries. The term solicitor refers to someone who practices law in a primarily administrative and client-facing setting. However, solicitors sometimes appear in court, especially lower courts. 

Barrister. Barrister is another term referring to a legal professional in the United Kingdom and other parts of the world. The primary duties of a barrister include representing clients in court, especially in complex cases. Barristers must fulfill a specific set of educational and training requirements, including some traditional formalities.

Esquire. Esquire (Esq.) is an honorary title generally given to someone who has taken and passed the bar exam and is licensed by their state’s bar association. The term will often appear on business cards, resumes, or signatures, following the name of someone who has met the necessary requirements. 

Advocate. The term “advocate” has different definitions in different countries. In the United States, the word advocate is often used interchangeably with terms like attorney and lawyer and bears no special legal significance. 

Counsel. “Legal counsel” is a general term for someone who gives legal advice. Though it is sometimes used interchangeably with lawyer or attorney, it often specifically refers to someone who is trained in law, and works in-house for an organization or corporation.


To sum up the key terms we’ve explored, here are some questions offering a concise comparison of common legal roles.

Attorney vs. lawyer vs. counsel: what are the differences?

Attorneys, lawyers, and counsel have all been educated and trained in law. As explained above, attorneys must pass the bar exam and practice law in court. Lawyers have also taken the bar exam, and may or may not practice law. Counsels provide legal advice, and often work for an organization or corporation. The terms are often used interchangeably in everyday speech, despite the differences in meaning.

Esq. vs. JD: What are the differences?

The titles JD and Esq. both refer to someone who has completed law school. JD stands for Juris Doctor, and signifies that someone has completed law school and earned their JD degree. Esq. stands for Esquire and is an honorary title that typically signifies someone has both completed law school and passed the bar exam. There is some disagreement among states regarding the requirements for each title.

Last updated November 2023.