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Posted on March 26, 2020 in Attorney Insights

What Is the Difference Between A Lawyer and An Attorney?

When looking for legal help, you will notice that the use of the words lawyer and attorney are often used interchangeably. This is especially true in the U.S. Is there a difference between the two? What qualifies someone to be a lawyer or an attorney? The crucial difference is that an attorney has passed the Bar exam and is in the state bar, whereas a lawyer doesn’t have to meet these criteria.

What is a Lawyer?

In general, a lawyer is someone who has graduated from an accredited law school with a Juris Doctor degree (JD). A JD is a foundational degree that most American attorneys get before they take the bar exam. Law school allows students to gain a broad understanding of the law. Once they have the JD degree, they can decide whether they want to pursue taking the bar exam.

After a lawyer obtains a JD, they may continue to work towards a Master of Laws degree (LLM). This degree specializes in a certain type of law like taxes, estate planning, or international law. Lawyers often work in legal consulting and give legal advice if they have not passed a bar exam. They may also work in legal research or manage large law firms. Often, those that graduate from a top Ivy League law school go into teaching law.

What is an Attorney?

An attorney is commonly defined as someone who has passed a state bar exam and is licensed to practice law in one or more states. Attorneys usually specialize in at least one type of law including personal injury, criminal defense, trusts and estates, bankruptcy, employment, or immigration. Attorneys hired by the state are often called prosecutors or public defenders.

Attorneys are the standard for what you see in movies and on TV. Attorneys perform a variety of duties including:

  •         Representing clients before a judge or jury
  •         Working in criminal defense or prosecution
  •         Researching case law and arguing it in court
  •         Engaging in the discovery process
  •         Examining evidence before a trial
  •         Advising clients on their legal rights and options
  •         Requesting appeals in court

What is the difference between a Lawyer and an Attorney?

An attorney can call themselves either a lawyer or an attorney. However, a lawyer may or may not be an attorney. In the U.S., the only requirement for calling oneself a lawyer is that they graduated law school. They do not have to pass a bar exam or be admitted to a state bar. An attorney, however, has passed a bar exam and is licensed to practice law in some jurisdiction.

How do I become a Lawyer or an Attorney?

The first step is to complete your education. First, obtain a bachelor’s degree. While there is no required focus, many lawyers and attorneys major in business or pre-law. The next step is to do well on the LSATS, go to an accredited law school, and obtain your JD degree. While in school, it is recommended to participate in as many activities as possible like Bar Review and Moot Court.

Once you graduate from law school, you can officially call yourself a lawyer. There are further steps you need to take before you can also call yourself an attorney. First, you need to apply to take the bar exam in the state of your choosing. Once you pass, you will only be licensed to practice law in that state. Make sure to pick the state that you intend to live and work in. Some states allow you to transfer your license, but this is not a guarantee. You may end up taking several bar exams if you intend to be an attorney in multiple states.

Each state has several requirements that must be met before being able to sit for the bar exam. In Arizona, you must be at least 21 years old, have a JD degree, and be able to prove that you are of a good moral character and mentally and emotionally able to practice law. The last step includes lots of paperwork and often an interview with a seasoned Arizona lawyer. The bar exam is complex and hard. Not everyone passes. If you do, you will be sworn in as a licensed attorney. You can now call yourself an attorney.

It is rare, but some states allow certain people to take a bar exam without ever attending law school. This is commonly utilized by lawyers who are foreign-born and trained. They have to first prove that their legal education was similar to an American JD program. Secondly, they would still need to pass certain hurdles discussed below to sit for a state bar.