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

June 21, 2023 | Attorney, Matthew Dolman
What’s the Difference Between an Attorney and a Lawyer?

The words lawyer and attorney are often used interchangeably to describe an individual who is licensed to practice law and provides legal services on behalf of clients. Is there a distinction between attorney vs. lawyer? Are the words really synonymous?

Technically, no. While a lawyer and an attorney have similar education requirements and job experiences, and one can also be the other, there is a distinction between the two terms. Keep reading to learn more about the difference between a lawyer and an attorney.

Lawyer vs. Attorney - Which is Correct?

Is the difference between a lawyer and an attorney a big one? For most people, no. In fact, unless you're in law school, preparing for your state bar exam, or you are an attorney, you are safe to use the words interchangeably without offending another lawyer (or a Bar association). Let's look at the terms and what they mean.

What Is a Lawyer?

A lawyer is trained in the law and has obtained the required education to practice law but does not necessarily represent clients in court. Instead, lawyers provide legal advice to clients and can assist them with the preparation of legal documents. The education required for an individual to become a lawyer usually includes four full-time years of undergraduate studies and an undergraduate degree, along with three years of law school and successful completion of the state's written bar exam in each state where the professional wishes to practice law.

Some of the circumstances in which lawyer would technically be the appropriate term to use include:

  • When you refer to the legal professional who assisted you in drawing up a will or developing a trust for your loved ones as an estate lawyer.
  • When you seek guidance from a legal professional about setting up or maintaining a corporation.
  • When you need advice from a legal professional about a tax issue and work with a tax lawyer.
  • When you work with an immigration lawyer to apply for citizenship, visas, or green cards, or when seeking asylum.
  • When you need a prenuptial agreement, and you ask a family lawyer to provide these services.
  • When you need advice regarding the proper procedures for completing and filing a legal document.
  • When you're looking for a legal professional to assist you with protecting your intellectual property through a trademark, copyright, or patent you should work with an intellectual property lawyer.

What Is an Attorney?

The term attorney is short for attorney-at-law. Like lawyers, attorneys must attend law school, obtain a law degree, and pass the written bar exam to practice. However, unlike lawyers, attorneys often represent their clients in court proceedings.

You would rely on the services of an attorney if you are:

  • Involved in a criminal or civil case that is going to trial before a judge or jury.
  • You are seeking representation in a claim against the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
  • You want to negotiate compensation after an accident involving injuries or property damage.
  • You need representation in a divorce proceeding or custody dispute.
  • You have an immigration matter to contest or defend in court.
  • You have filed a medical malpractice lawsuit, or a patient is suing you for medical malpractice.

While all attorneys in the U.S. are lawyers because they have completed the requirements to earn that title, not all lawyers are attorneys because some of them do not practice law in court. The key difference between lawyers and attorneys is how they use their degrees. Many legal professionals who have obtained the requisite education prefer the word “attorney” as it denotes an additional level of services that they provide their clients.

Attorney and lawyer aren't the only terms for a legal professional who has obtained a law degree and serves clients either inside or outside the courtroom.

Other common terms for legal professionals include:

  • Solicitor: Professionals who practice law in the United Kingdom and several other countries use this term. While solicitors generally offer services for their clients outside of court, they can occasionally make a court appearance, particularly in the lower courts.
  • Barrister: Like solicitors, a barrister describes legal professionals in the United Kingdom and other parts of the world. Barristers, however, generally represent clients in court, particularly in complex cases.
  • Esquire: Commonly abbreviated as Esq., esquire is an honorary title given to someone who has obtained a law degree and has passed the state bar exam.
  • Advocate: While the term means different things in different countries, the term “advocate” in the U.S. is used interchangeably with the words attorney and lawyer.
  • Counsel: This term refers to someone who gives legal advice. It usually refers to someone who has been trained in law but works in-house for an organization or corporation.

In the U.S., the preference for the term attorney vs lawyer is often regional, with one term more common in certain areas than others. However, in Canada, England, or Australia, if you were to request the assistance of an attorney, the individual you speak with may not understand what you are saying because those regions do not use "attorney."

Lawyer vs. Attorney: Does It Matter?

If you are looking for a legal professional that can represent you in court, you need an experienced attorney. This can be confusing, however, as even trial attorneys refer to themselves as lawyers. One surefire way to ensure that you are consulting with the right legal professional is to schedule a free case evaluation where you can meet and ask about their education, licensing, and experience.

Attorney vs. Lawyer: Which Should You Trust With Your Case?

At most law firms, both the term “lawyer” and “attorney” are used to describe legal professionals. If you have a legal issue, hiring knowledgeable legal professionals ensures that you have someone working on your case who has a law degree, has passed the state bar, has obtained the experience needed to handle cases like yours, and is fully qualified to help you seek compensation for your injury through either a negotiated settlement or litigation.

The best personal injury advocates are equally comfortable with both negotiations and litigation. Their focus is usually more on obtaining much-needed compensation for clients than on their titles.

If you were injured by someone else's careless or reckless actions, a dedicated personal injury attorney can provide:

  • Guidance regarding your legal options and answers to the questions you have about your case during a free, no-obligation case evaluation.
  • A determination of all sources of liability and all insurance resources that can be accessed to provide compensation to you. Remember that the amount of insurance carried by the at-fault party is one of the most important factors that can impact the value of your case because insurance companies pay compensation in most personal injury cases. You can sue an uninsured person and even obtain a judgment in your favor, but you may have trouble collecting your judgment if the at-fault party has no money or assets to pay you.
  • A valuation of your case based on the expenses you have incurred because of your injury, as well as the loss of quality of life that you have experienced since becoming injured. Some of the most common expenses and losses that individuals seek in personal injury cases include:
    • Medical expenses,
    • Lost wages,
    • Loss of future earning capacity,
    • Property damage (such as repairing or replacing a car you were driving when you got into an accident),
    • Physical pain and suffering resulting from both the injury as well as any complicated or particularly painful treatments that are required,
    • Emotional distress, and
    • Loss of the enjoyment of life.
  • Negotiations with the at-fault party's insurance provider in an attempt to garner a fair settlement offer on your behalf. These negotiations generally begin when your attorney sends a demand package to the insurance provider seeking the full value of your case. Upon receipt of this demand package, the insurance provider has three choices:
    • They can approve the claim as submitted.
    • They can reject the claim outright. This generally occurs if there is a discrepancy about who caused the accident or if the at-fault party allowed their insurance to lapse and the carrier is no longer responsible for providing liability coverage.
    • The insurance provider can respond with an initial settlement offer. Often, these initial offers are far below what you need or deserve.
  • Continued negotiations, possibly including mediation or arbitration, until all parties reach a settlement that they can agree to if that's possible. At some point, when you and your attorney decide that these negotiations have gone on long enough without a fair settlement offer, your lawyer may file a personal injury lawsuit in civil court.
  • The timely filing of your personal injury claim in court. Time is the crucial factor with this service, as all states have time limits for filing personal injury claims. If you miss the statutory deadline for filing your lawsuit, you generally cannot seek compensation for your injuries through the courts.
  • The gathering and preparation of evidence and witness testimony to prove your case. Many times, discovery will provide crucial evidence from the defendant. This is also when your attorney can depose witnesses to obtain information from the defendant's witnesses. Testimony from experts such as medical professionals or accident reconstruction specialists can further support some cases.
  • Preparation for court, including opening and closing arguments, witness examinations, and presenting evidence. Settlement negotiations can continue during this time and even after the trial begins until the jury renders a judgment.
  • Litigation. Most cases are settled before they see the inside of the courtroom. However, the attorney you work with needs ample trial experience to best position you for a successful outcome.
Personal Injury Attorney, Matt Dolman
Personal Injury Attorney, Matt Dolman
  • Assistance collecting your award or settlement. Generally, claimants who receive a damage award or settlement will have their money in hand in about six weeks after a judgment or settlement agreement. This process often involves signing release forms and other documents, the time it takes for the insurance company to process your payment, the time it takes for your attorney to receive the check and place it in escrow so that it can pay your liens, your attorney's deduction for the cost of their services, and the provision of the remaining funds to you.
  • Appellate representation if the defendant in your case decides to appeal the judgment against them.
  • If you are confused about calling your personal injury advocate a lawyer vs. an attorney, don't worry. An experienced legal professional can help you understand the complicated legal process and how you might pursue compensation for your losses after you or a loved one are injured in an accident.


    Matthew Dolman

    Personal Injury Lawyer

    This article was written and reviewed by Matthew Dolman. Matt has been a practicing civil trial, personal injury, products liability, and mass tort lawyer since 2004. He has represented over 11,000 injury victims and has served as lead counsel in over 1000 lawsuits. Matt is a lifetime member of the Million Dollar Advocates Forum and Multi-Million Dollar Advocates Forum for resolving individual cases in excess of $1 million and $2 million, respectively. He has also been selected by his colleagues as a Florida Superlawyer and as a member of Florida’s Legal Elite on multiple occasions. Further, Matt has been quoted in the media numerous times and is a sought-after speaker on a variety of legal issues and topics.

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