Ok. This distinction is a question few people don’t ask since they seem to mean the same thing. But are they? Most people think it’s the same. But some differences could affect your interactions with the courts. Many people, including the editors over at Wikipedia, use the terms attorney and lawyer as if they were the same. But like most legal terms, they are not interchangeable. Because of this, I wanted to explain the slight differences for the technically minded.
A person learned in the law; as an attorney, counsel, or solicitor. Any person who, for fee or reward, prosecutes or defends causes in courts of record or other judicial tribunals of the United States, or of any of the states, or whose business it is to give legal advice in relation to any cause or matter whatever. Act of July 13, 1800. (See Infra.)
This legal beagle is someone licensed by the state bar to practice law and represent their clients. Attorneys have a higher standard than lawyers. So they must have all of the prerequisite training and expertise needed to handle many types of cases.
Attorney usually denotes an agent or substitute appointed and authorized to act in the place or stead of another. In re Ricker, 60 N. H. 207, 29 Atl. 559, 24 L. R. A. 740; Eichelberger v. Sifford, 27 Md. 320. It is “an ancient English word, and signifies one that is set in the turn, stead, or place of another; and of these some be private * * * and some be [public], as attorneys at law.” Co. Litt. 516, 128a; Britt 2856. . . (See Infra.)
At the other end of the legal beagle, the spectrum is the “lawyer.”
A lawyer is a person who studies law. And this person may even have a Juris Doctorate. But until this individual passes the Bar Exam, they can’t practice law. However, against State Bar Rules, they may give people legal advice. To recap, all it takes to be a lawyer at common law is simply studying the law. Paupers were considered lawyers at common law. Many were highly respected. Modernly, we even have fee waivers called In Forma Pauperis “Waivers” because of the respect old courts had for poor people learned in the law.
Sometimes differences could seem minute. But they could make a significant difference in your case. Having an unqualified advocate is clearly against your best interest.
Those trained in the field of law are often called “lawyers.” People trained in the law include paralegals. But they are not ordinary people who have read for the law or attended law school. So it is doubtful they could call themselves lawyers absent that special education. In any event, I think it is pretty clear that a paralegal is NOT a lawyer.
Esquire often follows an attorney’s name as a title. Esquire in the United States most often means that an attorney has passed the bar of that particular state, but not always. Of course, our founders looked upon titles of nobility as a potentially dangerous thing.
In the United Kingdom, non-attorneys use the “Esq” title for educational titles. So in the UK, attorneys are called barristers or solicitors. Knowing whether or not the person you are contacting has the training and skill for the job remains vital in any event.
If you think these distinctions do not make a difference, it could lead you in the wrong direction. Making sure your advocate has the correct level of legal training is vital. After all, it could make all the difference in and out of court or in negotiations. Don’t cut any corners. Never allow an unqualified individual to take on your case. The wrong choice could affect you for the rest of your life. When in doubt, contact an honest attorney with a name in good standing with the state bar.