Peter Blair | May 19, 2022 | Criminal Defense
Most people use the words “lawyer” and “attorney” interchangeably. This makes sense. In casual use, the words have effectively identical meanings. But in the legal world, the terms have important differences.
What Is a Lawyer?
In the simplest terms, a lawyer is anyone who has been educated about the law. Most lawyers have received formal education from an American Bar Association (ABA) accredited law school. But someone who is self-educated would also qualify as a lawyer.
Lawyers have a level of knowledge that the average person does not. They understand subtle differences in the law, like the difference between murder and manslaughter. They know the proper way to file motions and address the court. If necessary, a lawyer could represent themselves in court with a reasonable chance of success.
This knowledge level differentiates lawyers from those who simply do a web search to learn about a legal topic. Lawyers have more than surface knowledge about legal topics and understand the surrounding topics and relevant history.
What Is an Attorney?
Just because you are educated in the law, that doesn’t mean you can practice law in the U.S. To legally practice law in the U.S., you need to pass the bar exam for the jurisdiction where you are practicing. Anyone who has passed the bar exam in any state (or the uniform bar exam) is classified as an attorney.
This means that they are legally permitted to practice law in some parts of the United States. However, just because you are an attorney doesn’t mean you can practice law everywhere. Every state has different rules for the bar exam, which makes it complicated if you want to practice law in multiple states.
How to Become an Attorney
The way to become either a lawyer or an attorney is to attend a law school. This provides a strong background in formal law. Additionally, law schools train students in the practical aspects of the law. Upon graduation, graduates will be lawyers and need only pass a bar exam to become attorneys.
Privileges of an Attorney
An attorney has significantly more privileges than a lawyer. While a lawyer could represent themselves, they don’t have the right to represent others at trial without special dispensation from the court.
A lawyer also is not supposed to provide legal advice to others for compensation. That counts as “practicing law” and requires that you have passed a bar exam.
In simplest terms, attorneys have a license to make a living using their legal knowledge. This applies both to consulting and to direct interactions with the court system.
Can a Lawyer Still Use Their Legal Knowledge as Part of Their Job?
While there are limits on how a person can use their legal knowledge as a lawyer, they aren’t entirely prevented from using it as part of their job. You can use your knowledge of the law to make relevant decisions and fill out paperwork, as long as you are not directly representing clients or providing legal advice to others.
Alternatively, individuals can work in the legal field even if they are not yet classified as an attorney.
Most law clerks and paralegals are lawyers, but they may not be attorneys. They are using their legal knowledge and training to support or supplement the actions of an attorney or a judge. However, the actual practice of law is being performed by someone with the legal right to do so, not the lawyer.