Conversationally, it’s not uncommon for the terms “attorney” and “lawyer” to be viewed as synonymous to one another. But have you ever wondered what the difference is between an attorney and a lawyer? Though common, is it technically accurate to use the two terms interchangeably?
The truth is that in modern English in the United States, there is no difference between an attorney and a lawyer. Either word can be used to describe a person who has an active license to practice law. And earning such a license is a long and complex process. To obtain a license to practice law, one must graduate from an accredited law school, pass a state bar exam, pass a state ethics exam, undergo a criminal background check, meet certain character and fitness requirements, and take an oath before a judge. Once licensed, an attorney or lawyer must meet annual continuing legal education requirements. A law license authorizes a person to give legal advice and represent others in legal matters.
By contrast, a person who has graduated from law school but has not obtained a license to practice law is neither an attorney nor a lawyer. That person is a law school graduate. Likewise, a person who has surrendered his or her law license (for retirement or other reasons) is no longer an attorney or lawyer, and neither is a person who has been disbarred.
The words “attorney” and “lawyer” have different etymologies and may have had different connotations in the past or in another country. But in the United States today, they are equivalent and interchangeable. Think of the titles as analogous to “doctor” and “physician”. Either can be used to describe one who has graduated from medical school and possesses a license to practice medicine (a med school graduate without a license, in turn, is neither).
Some Internet sites assert a technical difference between an “attorney” and a “lawyer,” but no such distinction is made in the legal profession in the United States today.
Legally speaking, let us turn to Black’s Law Dictionary--the authoritative source for legal definitions. The resource defines an “attorney” as “a person who practices law; lawyer,” and “lawyer” as “One who is licensed to practice law.” One in the same. A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage notes that the terms “are not generally distinguished even by members of the profession,” and it dismisses any distinction between the terms as “archaic” and “rarely, if ever, observed in practice.”