What Is The Difference Between A Lawyer And Attorney?

In the United States we hear the words ‘lawyer’ and ‘attorney’ thrown about a whole lot, and simply assume they mean the same thing. While it’s true that, for the layman, the distinction is not a very important one, in legal circles the distinction is incredibly important, and failure to appreciate the difference may cause trouble.

This article will seek to highlight the difference between these two professions and what roles they play in the justice system to ensure that you know the distinction between the two, and also so you know who you need to consult with on legal matters.


A lawyer, put simply, is one who is versed in the law. In the United States this definition can apply to anybody who has graduated law school. This person has not passed the bar exam and so would be barred from many legal professions in the United States until he succeeds at doing so. Since a non-attorney lawyer has not passed the bar, he cannot represent others in trials, and to do so creates severe legal consequences for the lawyer in question.

However, lawyers may still serve in a legal capacity through other means including legal research and policy consultation. While they cannot represent a person, they are still in theory as well versed and knowledgeable on the law as an attorney, and so can dispense this advice as requested. They would also be able to conduct legal research to assist attorneys in their legal battles even if not able to personally appear in court as a part of the defense team.


While all attorneys are lawyers, not all lawyers are attorneys. Unlike a lawyer, an attorney has taken and successfully passed the bar exam for their particular jurisdiction and has the legal right to practice law in their state or other region as defined by the laws of their residence. In addition to performing the basic functions of a lawyer, an attorney may also represent others in legal battles according to their specialty. An attorney is, in sort, a legal professional who can directly fight for you. Because of this distinction, many attorneys are better known as ‘attorneys-at-law’, though this phrase is shortened for ease of use.

As such, the chief difference between a lawyer and attorney is analogous to the difference between a military historian and a general. Where the former knows the field very well and can speak as an expert on the information, the latter actually applies this knowledge to a real world setting and thus has the advantage of being able to test these theories in the ever changing legal world where new precedents or laws come into effect every day.


The distinction between lawyer and attorney is an important one to make when one seeks the protection or other use of the law. While lawyers are excellent resources for one seeking simple advice on the legal perspectives of a given situation, those who need actual representation are advised to seek an attorney. Thus it is important to make the distinction, if one believes they would need legal representation in court it is recommended to seek an attorney as they are best equipped not only to handle the functions that a lawyer would fill, but join you in court to assist you in your fight for justice.

This article was written by Brennen Kliffmueller. Brennen is currently in law school studying to become a lawyer and eventually an attorney.  While in school, Brennan contributes content to Orl-law – an Orlando based attorney office.