What’s the Difference Between a Lawyer and an Attorney?

Most people use the words “attorney” and “lawyer” interchangeably in California. In Bakersfield, residents may use these words to describe someone who represents them in a criminal case at the Kern County Superior Court, a contract dispute, an employment law matter, or after an accident. 

Even Google uses these words synonymously. For example, if you search for an attorney in Bakersfield, you will see both lawyers and attorneys. But this isn’t limited to California, of course. For instance, if you search for “attorney in Harrisburg, PA,” the results will include attorneys and lawyers practicing law near Harrisburg, PA. 

People all across the country believe lawyer and attorney to mean the same thing. However, it is important to understand that the words “attorney” and “lawyer” have a historical difference.

What is a Lawyer?

Historically, a lawyer was someone who graduated from law school and obtained a Juris Doctor (JD) degree. Law school is generally a three-year graduate program. In other words, you must obtain a bachelor’s degree in another field of study before you apply to law school. 

Many lawyers obtain undergraduate degrees in fields related to the practice of law, such as political science, criminal justice, business, English, international relations, and history. The area the lawyer intends to focus their law practice upon may influence their choice of undergraduate degrees. For example, if you want to practice environmental law, you may seek an undergraduate degree in environmental science.

What is an Attorney?

Traditionally, an attorney was a person who held a JD and obtained a license to practice in court. Passing the bar examination is required to practice law and represent clients in court. State laws prohibit individuals from practicing law without a license and set penalties for the unauthorized practice of law.

Licensure Was the Key Difference Between Attorneys and Lawyers

Passing a bar examination and meeting the specific state criteria to obtain a law license used to be the key difference between a lawyer and an attorney. Lawyers used their legal education in other ways besides the practice of law, such as working under the supervision of a licensed attorney or as a consultant or government advisor. They may decide to become professional mediators or arbitrators to assist parties in resolving their disputes without going through the court.

Today, we use the terms lawyer and attorney synonymously. Typically, we use these terms to describe a professional who has earned a law degree and is licensed to practice law before the courts of a state.

It is essential that you verify whether the attorney is licensed to practice within the state and the court that has jurisdiction over your legal matter. You can check with the State Bar Association in some states to verify a lawyer holds a license to practice within that state. 

You may also contact the regulatory or licensing agency in that state that grants bar licenses to confirm whether a lawyer is in good standing to practice law within the state. For instance, in Pennsylvania, you would check with the Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania to determine the status of an attorney’s license to practice law. 

What Should I Look for When Hiring an Attorney?

As with any profession, you want to ensure that you hire the right person for the job. Therefore, if you need an attorney, you want to hire the best attorney to handle your situation. But, how do you know which attorney to hire? There are probably many attorneys in your area. 

First, search for an attorney who focuses their law practice on cases similar to your case. 

For example, if you were injured in a car accident, you want to hire a personal injury attorney. Personal injury attorneys handle cases involving car accidents, medical malpractice, wrongful death, product liability, and premises liability. In addition, some personal injury attorneys may concentrate on specific types of personal injury cases, such as defective medical devices or maritime accidents.

Other factors that you may want to consider when searching for an attorney include:

  • How much experience does the attorney have practicing law?
  • Does the attorney have special skills or resources?
  • Has the attorney obtained special certifications or awards related to a specific practice of law?
  • How much experience does the attorney have trying cases in court?
  • Will the attorney personally manage your case?
  • Does the attorney listen to you and respond to your questions or concerns?
  • Does the attorney appear to have good communication skills, judgment, and knowledge of the law?

Above all, you need to feel comfortable with the attorney. If you do not feel at ease when meeting with a lawyer, it is unlikely that you will be able to communicate effectively with the attorney during your case. Effective communication with your attorney is an essential element you need to win your case. 

Therefore, you may want to meet with several attorneys before hiring an attorney to handle your case. Meeting with several attorneys allows you to get a better feeling for your case, in addition to judging which attorney you believe would be the best attorney to handle your case. 

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