Objection! Breaking down the key difference between lawyers and attorneys

When it comes to matters of the law and litigation, the tiniest of details matter. An addendum added to a contract at the last moment, or perhaps an overlooked discrepancy or seemingly inconsequential piece of evidence, can be the deciding factor between a favorable verdict or finding oneself on the wrong side of the law. 

Ironically, however, the terms “lawyer” and “attorney” have erroneously become interchangeable in modern vernacular and culture. Supposedly synonyms, many readers may be surprised to find out there is actually a major difference between a lawyer and an attorney. The two positions definitely overlap, so while the confusion is understandable on a population level, if you’re personally considering a career in the legal industry, it’s essential to know the distinction. 

Attorney vs. Lawyer: Passing versus bypassing the bar

“Passing the bar” is one of those legal terms that we’ve all heard countless times in movies and TV shows, but let’s assume for a moment you haven’t seen My Cousin Vinny. The bar exam is the final exam a legal professional must pass in order to become an attorney. The specifics of the exam will vary by jurisdiction and state, but in a nutshell, the bar exam is the main factor separating attorneys from lawyers.

Simply put, an attorney is a lawyer who has passed the bar exam and is officially licensed to practice law. Primarily, this means an attorney can represent their clients in a court of law, whether that be an individual or entity. Different attorneys specialize in various fields. Some focus on criminal proceedings, either as a prosecutor or defense attorney, while others focus exclusively on civil litigation. Attorneys also routinely negotiate settlements or “deals” on behalf of their clients.

A lawyer, on the other hand, has not passed the bar exam. Both lawyers and attorneys attend and graduate from a law school with a JD (Juris Doctor) degree. So, while all attorneys are technically also lawyers, not all lawyers are attorneys. 

While a lawyer is still a respected, knowledgeable legal professional capable of providing legal advice to others and interpreting rulings or laws, they absolutely cannot practice law and take on official clients. Many lawyers work at a law firm to gain more experience as they continue to prepare for the bar exam. Alternatively, instead of pursuing glory in the courtroom, other lawyers choose to work as consultants, legal officers, or legal professors/teachers/academics. 

It’s not the lawyer-client privilege 

Another legal trope depicted in too many works of fiction to count, it’s important to mention that lawyers hold no legal obligation to keep secrets. The famed attorney-client privilege only applies to, well, attorneys and their clients – and we’ve already gone over how lawyers can’t even take on clients. This leads us to another key distinction separating lawyers from attorneys; the Model Rules of Professional Conduct (MRPC).

A set of model rules or guidelines provided by the American Bar Association, the MRPC itself is not binding law, but does serve as an example for state regulators. All 50 states (and Washington, DC) have enacted legal ethics rules in at least partial alignment with the MRPC.

Interpreted and enforced by state bar associations and various other regulatory entities, the MRPC is intended to hold attorneys to a certain ethical and professional standard. The right to confidentiality of communications between a client and their attorney (with a few notable exceptions) is just one aspect of the MRPC. Others include avoiding conflicts of interest, providing competent representation, and performing reasonable diligence while representing a client.

While lawyers are certainly still expected to perform their work genuinely and attentively, they aren’t subject to the same legal oversight as attorneys. 

Career outlook: Attorney vs. lawyer

While passing the bar and going on to become a litigation attorney may seem like the obviously more attractive career option, there are still plenty of engaging and lucrative positions open to lawyers. First of all, during law school both attorneys and lawyers must choose the specific area of law they’ll specialize in. From labor and tax law to civil rights or criminal proceedings, there is a wide variety of legal arenas to zero in on. 

Job and career opportunities will, of course, vary depending on the area of law a lawyer chooses to specialize in, but many lawyers work as legal counsel for corporations, non-profits, or government agencies.