Attorney vs lawyer: what's the difference?

May 11, 2022

People often think that attorneys and lawyers are the same thing. In fact, the terms have been used interchangeably for years, right across the world. But, despite their similarities, there are also some key differences between the two professions. 

The nuances between the two roles can be confusing, particularly for those that haven’t practiced law. To help ease any confusion, this Juro explainer explores the attorney vs lawyer comparison and explains the important differences between the two professions, from their salary through to the work they do day to day.  

Attorney vs lawyer: what’s the difference?

Within the US, the main difference between an attorney and a lawyer is that an individual must successfully pass a bar exam and become a member of a state bar association to be considered an attorney. By comparison, the definition of a lawyer is far broader and covers anyone that has successfully completed law school and left with a law degree. 

There are also some linguistic differences between the two terms. For example, dictionaries say that the term lawyer has origins in Middle English, referring to an individual with legal education and/or training. Meanwhile, ‘attorney’ has French roots and originates from a word meaning to act on behalf of others. 

This distinction explains why attorneys are regarded as lawyers that practice in a court of law and on behalf of a client, but lawyers don’t always do this. 

There are also some additional, more specific differences between the two professions worth noting, as discussed below.

🎓 Qualifications

As we described briefly above, one of the most significant differences between a lawyer and an attorney is the licenses they hold. While both lawyers and attorneys will have graduated from law school, usually with either Juris Doctor (JD) degree or an LLB degree, attorneys will need to pass additional exams and gain an additional qualification on top of this. 

In the US, this is called a bar exam. To be admitted to the bar, you must first apply to sit the bar exam and successfully pass it. You’ll also need to pass additional tests relating to your character and fitness. These are set out by the state you’re seeking to practice in, and each state has its own criteria and process for admission to the bar.  Fortunately, some states will have reciprocal agreements which enable qualified attorneys to practice in other states without needing to resit the bar exam entirely. 

One thing that all states have in common, however, is that lawyers will not be awarded the title of an attorney without being admitted to the bar through the designated process. 

👔 Roles and responsibilities 

All attorneys are lawyers, but not all lawyers are attorneys. This means that certain responsibilities are reserved for attorneys but fall outside the scope of a lawyer’s work. 

One example of this is that attorneys typically represent their clients and engage in legal proceedings within a court of law, but not all lawyers are qualified to do this. If a lawyer hasn’t passed the bar exam in the US or gained membership in a state bar association, they will be unable to legally fulfill this responsibility within their state.

Instead, lawyers will typically take on responsibilities as consultants or legal advisors within a particular field. Doing this enables them to provide legal advice, but not represent the client in court. It’s common for lawyers to provide their legal services in-house, whether that’s for contract management or ensuring compliance within the company. 

💰 Salary range

One of the most common considerations when deciding whether to become an attorney or remain a lawyer is who gets paid more. Although attorneys are technically more qualified than lawyers due to their bar membership, it’s not clear whether an attorney gets paid more or not.

This is because there are so many different jobs for attorneys and lawyers, and each of these varies considerably based on where they practice, what they specialize in, how many years of experience they have, and how far they’ve progressed in their careers.

For example, lawyers can work as in-house legal counsel, for which advertised General Counsel salaries can far north of the $160,000 per year average for in-house lawyers, according to Indeed listings. This is similar to the salary range advertised on the same platform for attorney roles.

Attorney vs lawyer vs other legal professions

If that wasn’t confusing enough already, there are also various other terms for legal professionals, such as a barrister and a solicitor in the UK. Like attorneys and lawyers, the responsibilities and qualifications for both roles differ. Here’s how:

Barrister is another term for a legal professional in the UK, but unlike some lawyers, barristers are primarily responsible for providing legal representation in court. Usually, a barrister will attend court hearings, tribunals and various other litigation processes to advocate for their client’s interests. 

Barristers will usually work at a higher level and on more complex, specialist issues than some solicitors and other lawyers. To qualify as a barrister, an individual will need to have been admitted to the bar. 

A solicitor is another type of legal professional in the UK. Unlike barristers who will appear in court to represent a client, a solicitor will often prepare documents and cases for trial, but not present them. 

They usually advise their clients on various legal matters in an administrative setting, instead of before a court. Although it is possible for them to appear in lower court hearings, it’s more common that they will instruct a barrister to represent the client instead. 

There are also some other legal roles that are more specialized, like a contract manager or a contract administrator. These are specialists that focus on the creation and management of business agreements, rather than providing specialist legal advice to clients. As a result, it’s common for these roles to be in-house. 

When deciding which legal profession to pursue a career in, it’s important to consider your expertise, experience and qualifications, as well as which roles are available to you. With some of the fastest growing companies hiring top legal talent all the time, legal professionals are no longer confined to the parameters of being either an attorney or a lawyer. Instead, there’s a wealth of exciting opportunities available as they progress in their legal career. 

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