It's common to call a lawyer an attorney as the terms are often used interchangeably. But did you know that there's a difference between a lawyer and an attorney? The distinction is quite important to the bar association; hence, the terms have to be used correctly. It may also matter to the client who is looking for legal representation.

Did you know that if you're involved in a civil case, you are actually allowed to represent yourself? This is known as a pro se litigation and at least 27 percent of civil lawsuits were conducted in this manner in the U.S. courts in 2013.

But most people would rather hire a legal professional or a talented practitioner to ensure greater chances of winning the case. If you're in this bind, then you're likely wondering if you should be hiring a lawyer or an attorney to handle your legal problem so it’s important to understand the differences.

What qualifies someone as a lawyer?

Lawyers have had years of studies and training to understand the law and the judicial system. They specialize in various areas of the law to provide legal advice to clients. They have taken and passed the bar to obtain the license to practice law.

However, not all lawyers may choose to take the bar exam since this is a matter of personal choice and discretion.

Duties of a lawyer

Duties of a lawyer

Lawyers are compelled to strictly observe a code of ethics once they become members of the bar. They draft and write the technical nuances of contracts, wills, and various legal documents.

Technically, however, anyone who has graduated from law school can be regarded as a lawyer even if they have not become members of the bar. But generally, most people consider lawyers as law students who have passed the bar and are, therefore, more qualified to give legal advice. In other words, being a bar passer gives credence to someone who has studied the law.

However, some lawyers may not necessarily have to practice the law in court or keep a long list of clients. They are still lawyers even without actually becoming an officer of the court. For instance, after graduating from law school, a lawyer may become a government advisor or a company consultant. He’s still a lawyer but his work doesn't entail representing clients in legal proceedings.

A lawyer may also help strengthen the cases handled by another attorney. The lawyer, however, may not have to argue the case in court.

You may seek a lawyer if...

  • You're planning to draw up a will or trust for your loved ones. (Estate Lawyer)
  • You'd like to be guided on properly setting up and maintaining a corporation. (Corporate Lawyer)
  • You need crucial advice on a tax issue. (Tax Lawyer)
  • You have to deal with an immigration matter like citizenship, visas, green cards, or asylum. (Immigration Lawyer)
  • You plan on having a prenuptial agreement. (Family Lawyer)
  • You need to go over and understand work contracts with an employee or employer. (Employment Lawyer)
  • You want your intellectual property protected via copyright, trademark, or patent. (Intellectual Property Lawyer)
  • You generally need legal advice or learn the proper procedures and terms of what’s in a legal document. (General Practitioner Lawyer)

What qualifies someone as an attorney?

Like lawyers, attorneys, also known as attorneys-at-law, have studied the law and the judicial system, as well as passed the bar to earn their license to practice the law. They are required to comply with a code of ethics but not every lawyer can be an attorney-at-law.

A lawyer can be called an attorney if he takes on a client and then represents and acts on this person’s interests, hence the term “attorney-client” privilege. Most legal practitioners prefer the term “attorney” since it has a more professional and dignified connotation than a “lawyer.”

Duties of an attorney

Duties of an attorney

The word attorney comes the old French word "atorner," which refers to an agent chosen by the client or principal to act on his behalf. They are the legal eagles that practice the law in court to defend, plead, and argue for their client.

It is compulsory for attorneys-at-law to take and pass the bar exam since they are the actual officers of the court. But there is also such a thing as a document called Power of Attorney, which gives these professionals, either as individuals or as a firm, the legal, financial, and medical right to decide for their client's interest. They make the calls and execute critical and sensitive decisions on behalf of their clients, as specifically defined and underscored in the document.

In some cases, an attorney may be an "attorney-in-fact." This is an individual who is authorized to conduct transactions on behalf of another person (client or principal). This is a temporary duty protected under the Power of Attorney or Special Power of Attorney.

An attorney-in-fact may be the principal's family member or a trusted close family friend. They do not have to practice the law so they are not an attorney-at-law. The latter should be a licensed lawyer who knows the law by heart.

You may hire an attorney if...

  • You are involved in a criminal case or a civil lawsuit that has to be tried in court. (Trial Attorney/Civic Litigation attorney)
  • You need to have representation against the IRS. (Tax Attorney)
  • You want to contest or defend a will or trust during litigation or a court proceeding. (Estate Attorney)
  • You want to contest or defend an immigration matter. (Immigration Attorney)
  • You need to undergo a divorce proceeding or a child custody litigation. (Family Attorney)
  • You want to negotiate for the right compensation for damages. (Personal Injury attorney)
  • You are suing or you're being sued for medical malpractice. (Medical Malpractice Attorney)
  • You have to contest or defend a copyright, trademark or patent lawsuit. (IP Attorney)

Final words

Both lawyers and attorneys have studied the law to give legal advice, but not all lawyers are qualified to perform the duties of an attorney.

A lawyer may not practice in court and may not have regular clients, but you can consult with a lawyer for legal matters that apply to their jurisdiction.