What's the Difference Between a Lawyer and an Attorney?

by Shelley Frost
Young female client at lawyers office

Your uncle is a “lawyer.” Your friend needs an “attorney.” Could you refer your friend to your uncle for his legal services, or is that barking up the wrong tree?

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The words “lawyer” and “attorney” are often used interchangeably, but they have some slight differences. Learning more about these two titles can give you a better sense of your options when it comes to legal counsel.

What Is a Lawyer?

A lawyer is someone who graduated from law school. That's the only requirement to be called a lawyer. They don't have to pass any state bar examinations to earn the title of lawyer. Lawyers can become attorneys, but not every lawyer is an attorney. Someone who doesn't become an attorney may have chosen not to take the bar exam, or they may have failed the exam.

There could also be a delay between graduating from law school and taking the bar exam. In that case, the person becomes a lawyer as soon as they graduate but can't become an attorney until they pass the bar exam.

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What Is an Attorney?

To be an attorney, you not only have to graduate from law school and earn your Juris Doctor degree, but you also have to pass the bar exam and become a member of a state bar association. The bar exam and bar association membership are state-specific, so an attorney needs to complete these requirements in the state where they plan to practice. To put it simply, an attorney is also a lawyer because they finished law school, but a person can't become an attorney until they pass the bar exam.

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What Are the Main Differences Between Lawyers and Attorneys?

The primary determining factor in whether a person is a lawyer or an attorney is whether they passed the bar exam and are a member of the state bar association. With that comes some differences in job duties. Lawyers who haven't passed the bar exam can't represent clients in court or other legal proceedings. While they can provide legal information, they can't give legal advice to clients. Doing the duties of an attorney as a lawyer could result in criminal charges.

Attorneys can represent clients, offer legal advice and participate in court. An attorney typically specializes in a particular law field, such as family law, immigration or criminal law. While attorneys have the right to represent clients in court, some choose to stay out of court with work such as out-of-court settlements, legal consulting and legal document preparation.

It's also important to note that you have attorney-client privilege when working with an attorney. This means the client doesn't have to disclose the confidential information they share with their attorney, and their attorney can't disclose the information in most circumstances. However, there isn't the same privilege as with a lawyer.

Can You Use the Words Interchangeably?

Many people use the words attorney and lawyer interchangeably. However, technically and legally, there is a distinction based on the bar exam and the duties each can perform. You'll want an attorney if you need legal advice and representation.

Keep in mind that some law offices might casually refer to their staff as lawyers since it's a common term for people who aren't familiar with law. Check the credentials of any attorney before you decide to have them represent you to ensure they have the right qualifications.

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