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Lawyer vs. Attorney: Distinction and Proper Use

Many people use the terms “attorney” and “lawyer” interchangeably, but there are actually some differences between the two.

A lawyer is someone who has completed a law degree and is licensed to practice law. An attorney is someone who is qualified by the state to represent clients in legal matters. Put simply, all attorneys are lawyers, but not all lawyers are attorneys. 

Appropriate Usage and Context

Although the two terms often operate as synonyms, there is a distinct difference that must be noted: Attorneys can legally represent you in court proceedings, but lawyers cannot. 

This is because you are required to pass the state bar exam to receive the license that allows you to legally represent clients. Without this license, law graduates—lawyers—can only provide legal information without interpreting how it would apply to a particular legal matter.

So, both lawyers and attorneys can provide legal counsel, but only a person who has passed the bar exam—an attorney—may legally represent clients in courtroom proceedings.

Difference Between Lawyer and Attorney

It can get a bit confusing to decipher when to use lawyer or attorney. Here is a breakdown of the qualifications of a lawyer vs the qualifications of an attorney.


  • Successfully earned a law degree at an accredited college or university. For example, a Juris Doctor (J.D.).
  • Uses their degree to provide legal counsel outside of the courtroom.
  • In general, most lawyers are in the process of becoming an attorney.
  • If they do not successfully pass the state bar exam, they are not considered attorneys. However, they may work in fields of law without the license of the state’s bar association, usually in a law firm under a licensed attorney or as part of an externship for learning experience.

Attorneys (Esq.)

  • Successfully earned a law degree at an accredited college or university.
  • Passed the state bar examination, giving them the title of Esquire (Esp.). This indicates a lawyer who has passed the bar exam and therefore holds the license of the state’s bar association.
  • Can legally represent clients, practice law in court, and offer legal advice that directly pertains to their client’s specific case.
  • Can also work as consultants for companies and individuals, just like regular lawyers.

Although both terms are related, it is worth noting that the specific definitions of these terms can vary depending on the jurisdiction.

Understanding the Influence of Jurisdictions

When it comes to hiring legal representation, it’s important to keep in mind that different states have different laws and regulations in place that determine who is recognized as a lawyer vs an attorney.

Some states may require lawyers to have certain qualifications or certifications, while others may not. Additionally, some states may have different rules in place when it comes to things like attorney-client privilege or the types of cases that lawyers can handle.

To get a better understanding of the requirements in your state, it’s a good idea to do some research or reach out to a local bar association for guidance.

Importance and Accuracy

The difference between a lawyer and an attorney is small, as both perform a variety of tasks and responsibilities all centered around providing guidance on legal matters and representing clients. Also, both play a crucial role in ensuring that individuals and businesses comply with the law and can help to resolve disputes and conflicts between parties.

Overall, lawyers and attorneys alike are essential for ensuring that our legal system operates fairly and effectively, but only an attorney who passed the state bar may legally represent clients in their affairs. Even so, in conversational or informal contexts, the word lawyer is very commonly used to refer to attorneys.

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