Attorney vs Lawyer: What Are the Differences?

In the United States, the terms lawyer and attorney are often used interchangeably. For this reason, people in and out of the legal field often ask, “is an attorney and a lawyer the same thing?”.

In colloquial speech, the specific requirements necessary to be considered a lawyer vs attorney aren’t always considered. Though in everyday speech these terms usually 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 (J.D.) degree. Whether you are wondering how to become a lawyer or an attorney in court, having the correct definition of each term may help to guide your career decisions.  

Attorney vs Lawyer: Comparing Definitions

Understanding the etymology of both terms can help you understand the distinction between attorney vs lawyer. Though both terms refer to someone who is educated in law, understanding the technical definitions brings the differences between lawyer and attorney to light.

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 the behalf 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 distinctions between the roles and duties of the two professions are important to understand. As noted, 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 may 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. Like lawyers, attorneys are required to abide by a code of ethics and may practice in both civil and criminal courts.

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Other Similar Law Terms

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

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. Unlike solicitors, 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, often abbreviated to 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 Esq. or Esquire 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. The term legal counsel is a general term for someone who gives legal advice. Though the term is sometimes used interchangeably with lawyer or attorney, it often specifically refers to someone who is trained in law, and who works in-house for an organization or corporation.

Attorney vs Lawyer vs Counsel: What are the Differences?

Attorneys, lawyers, and counsels have all been educated and trained in law. As explained above, attorneys must pass the bar exam, and practice law in court. Lawyers may or may not have 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 J.D.: What are the Differences?

The titles J.D. and Esq. both refer to someone who has completed law school. J.D. stands for Juris Doctor, and signifies that someone has completed law school and earned their J.D. degree. Esq. stands for Esquire and this title typically signifies that someone has both completed law school and passed the bar exam. For both terms, there is some disagreement between states regarding the requirements for each title.

In the United States, the terms attorney and lawyer are frequently considered synonyms. The two terms are often used interchangeably—but there are some differences to understand if you are considering law school, preparing for the bar exam, or embarking on a career in law. 

Information on this page was retrieved in August 2020.