Are You a ‘Lawyer’ or an ‘Attorney’?

Somewhere along the line, I picked up the idea that a lawyer is always a “lawyer,” but should only be called an “attorney” in connection with representing a client. (“John went to law school and became a lawyer. He is now the attorney for an accused bank robber.)

At his blog You Don’t Say, language maven John E. McIntyre offers a simple solution for how to distinguish between the two terms: “Don’t bother.”

In practice, the distinction is without a difference, McIntyre says. As authority, he cites Bryan Garner, editor in chief of Black’s Law Dictionary and author of several books on legal style. “I’m content to take his views as representing settled usage,” McIntyre writes.

If McIntyre and Garner both agree that a lawyer is an attorney is a lawyer, that’s good enough for this member of the bar.

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  • And what do they call a layman who becomes an attorney through a valid power of attorney?

  • Rosanne

    According to The Associated Press Styleguide and Libel Manual, “In ‘common’ usage the words are interchangeable.”

    Lawyers like being call “attorneys” but until you represent me, you are a lawyer.

    The distinction is worth keeping. I am not a member of any bar association nor have I attended law school but I can be anybody’s attorney, including my own.

    Attention to detail and nuance are lawyers’ tools of the trade. The outcome of an attorney’s case often rests on such splitting of the hairs. Yes?

    Thank you.

    • So glad I noticed this on Twitter because we’ve all sat around trying to figure out why American lawyers are commonly called attorneys yet in Canada we just call them all lawyers! On our two different sites for the respective countries we’ve referred to lawyers as attorneys on the US site because we thought that is how they are commonly referred to there. But maybe we can just call them all lawyers? I hope so. It would make my life easier!

      • I think many American lawyers call themselves “attorneys” because it sounds fancier.

      • Picador

        An attorney is someone who represents the legal interests of another by proxy. A lawyer is someone who practices law. A barrister is a member of the bar, i.e. an officer of the court, a litigator. A solicitor is someone who carries out legal negotiations and other tasks on behalf of his clients.

        In Canada’s common-law provinces (everywhere but Quebec), the barrister/solicitor distinction is still formally recognized but the two professions have been fully merged (i.e. you can’t be one and not the other). In Quebec, I understand that the term “attorney” has a specialized meaning (encompassing, I think, laymen with power of attorney), so it is not generally used interchangeably with “lawyer” in the other provinces in order to avoid confusion. In the US, of course, the terms “lawyer” and “attorney” are more or less interchangeable, with “attorney” having a slightly more archaic (and pretentious) ring to it. In at least some states, the formal licensing body refers to licensees as “attorneys at law”. I don’t know when the US officially jetissonned the barrister/solicitor distinction it inherited from England; I suspect it was a gradual, state-by-state process.

  • John McIntyre

    Tell me the last time you heard a non-lawyer in possession of a power of attorney call himself or herself an “attorney.”

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  • I’ve always understood that a lawyer is a law school graduate. An attorney at law is a lawyer that is admitted to the Bar.

  • Gregg

    Why stop there – what about counselor? I know some of my certificates state that I am an attorney-at-law and a counselor-at-law. I believe NJ now has a court rule that states that the position of counselor-at-law has been abolished.