Difference Between Attorney and Lawyer


Lawyers and Attorneys – What’s the difference?

The difference between an attorney and a lawyer can be difficult to distinguish and is largely based on the deeper meaning of the term attorney as compared to the term lawyer. In general, and to most individuals, the words attorney and lawyer are indistinguishable from one another; synonyms so closely related that the must be referring to the same kind of person. The truth is slightly more complicated than that, however.

In fact, the word lawyer is defined in the English language as an individual who practices or studies law. On the other hand, an attorney is defined as a person acting on behalf of another in business or legal matters.

The terms attorney and lawyer are not used very frequently in the UK, where the distinction is instead drawn between barristers and solicitors as the former are more likely to deal with court proceedings and the latter are more likely to prepare documentation and deal directly with clients, providing assistance and advice.

The History of the term “Attorney”

The term attorney took up common use primarily after being used in the US in its longer form of attorney-at-law. This term was used in the US in order to distinguish initially between individuals who had been generally trained in the law and those who had taken their studies further and had passed a professional bar exam, when these exams were first being introduced.

Lawyers had historically referred to individuals trained in the law who, up until the point at which law began to be considered a profession, had acted on behalf of individuals with a view to assisting them in their legal positions in tribunals and courts.

As law began to become a distinguishable discipline within the education field, both lawyers and attorneys might have been able to represent clients in court, but attorneys were specifically authorised to and thus there was an effort to draw a clear distinction between the professions.

Over time, the terms became interchangeable in the US as all lawyers are required to pass bar exams in order to successfully practice – graduate law students cannot give official legal advice. It may be deemed that law students can be considered lawyers although they are not allowed to practice, thus creating a difference between the terms, but this is an unlikely conclusion.

All Attorneys are Lawyers but not all Lawyers are Attorneys

It is far more likely that individuals who have passed the bar exam and are deemed fit to practice law deem themselves lawyers but not attorneys in situations where they do not represent clients in court.

This would mean that they provide legal assistance and advice to clients but do not attend court proceedings on their behalf. This manner of distinguishing the terms brings them slightly closer to the UK’s definable difference between barristers and solicitors, as set out above. However, the terms solicitor and barrister are not interchangeable, and individuals need to prepare for and pass different sets of examinations to qualify as one or the other.

With attorney and lawyer, even where a difference is considered, the qualification route is identical, and the distinction lies more in the type of work carried out. As a result, it can easily be concluded that all attorneys must be lawyers but not all lawyers need be attorneys.

The easiest way to remember it? Look no further than the diagram below:


  • Have passed a bar or qualification exam
  • Are registered with a professional regulatory body
  • Are authorised to provide legal advice to clients
  • May represent clients in court


  • Have passed a bar or qualification exam
  • Are registered with a professional regulatory body
  • Are authorized to provide legal advice to clients
  • Are trained to represent clients in court

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