Difference between a Lawyer and an Attorney

December 13, 2016 by Editorial Team

The words “lawyer” and “attorney” both describe practitioners of law. In the United States, they are interchangeable to the lay person. However, legally and strictly speaking, there is a fine line that separates the two words. This article will discuss how lawyers and attorneys are similar, and where they are different.


Author Elizabeth Wurtzel, a graduate of Yale Law School, once described herself as a lawyer even though she did not have a license to practice law

Strictly speaking, a lawyer is someone who has successfully earned a law degree. In the United States, law schools typically award the Juris Doctor degree, which, along with other requirements, allows a person to take the bar exam and be admitted into the practice of law. However, most states restrict the term “lawyer” to those who have a license to practice law. Those without licenses may provide some sort of legal advice but cannot charge a fee for it. Most lawyers, both with and without licenses, use the abbreviation “J.D.” after their names. However, those without licenses are not allowed to practice law in any form.

Johnnie Cochran, who represented O.J. Simpson at his murder trial, is a well-known trial attorney

An attorney, or attorney-at-law, is someone with the license to practice law, either as a counsel in open court, or as someone who assists in drafting contracts, wills, and other legally-binding documents. In most cases, attorneys charge fees for practicing law. To earn the license to practice law in a particular state, all attorneys take and pass the said state’s bar exam. While some attorneys pass the bar exam without formally studying law, most attorneys have J.D. degrees from accredited law schools. Upon passing the bar exams and signing the roll of attorneys, most attorneys use the abbreviation “Esq.” after their names.

Lawyer vs Attorney

What are the differences between a lawyer and an attorney? Experts disagree on this matter, saying that a lawyer who cannot practice law is no lawyer at all. However, strictly speaking, there are certain differences between the two.

Educational Attainment

A lawyer is someone who has a Juris Doctor degree; that is, a degree from a school of law. An attorney may or may not have a degree in law; however, an overwhelming percentage do have the J.D. degree.

License to Practice Law

The license to practice law includes the privilege of representing a client in open court, presenting oneself as a counsel, and drafting contracts and other documents in behalf of a client. A lawyer may or may not have the said license; this depends on his/her passing the bar exam in the state where he/she intends to practice the profession. On the other hand, an attorney has the license to practice law.

Name Suffix

Upon earning a law degree, lawyers choose to use the suffix “J.D.” after their names. After being admitted to the bar, attorneys usually prefer the suffix “Esq.”, although many use either of the two.

Comparison Chart

Holds a Juris Doctor degreeMay or may not hold a Juris Doctor degree
May or may not have passed a bar examMust have passed the bar exam
May or may not have the license to practice lawMust have the license to practice law
Can charge a fee for legal advice, but only if licensed to do soCan charge a fee for practicing law
Commonly uses the suffix “J.D.”Commonly uses either “Esq.”, “J.D.”, or both