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Attorney or Lawyer, Is There a Difference?

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Before the modern era, prior to the merging of the courts of law with the courts of equity, attorney and lawyer were separate concepts with separate responsibilities. However, in the present age, and in the general and specific parlance of the United States, there is no difference between an attorney and a lawyer. They are synonyms and are used interchangeably. In current usage, an attorney, sometimes referred to as an attorney-at-law or a lawyer, is a person who is a member of the legal profession, qualified and licensed to represent a client in court, act on the client's behalf, and plead or defend a case in legal proceedings. A lawyer is someone properly trained in the law and licensed to dispense legal advice. Distinctions between the two terms are found in both the history of the English language and in the historical development of the legal profession.

Origins of the Terms

An overview of the etymology reveals that both terms begin to appear in the 13th and 14th centuries. The word "attorney" derives from the Old French attorne meaning "appointed" or "assigned". "Lawyer", the later term, is a modification of the word "law", originally meaning to lay, and is of Germanic/Norse origin. Their differentiation in English stems from the use of French and other Latin-based languages in the legal systems of continental Europe. With French emerging as the language of business and trade, the term "attorney" gained preference. In England, because of the Norman French influence on the development of the English legal system, the term "attorney" is also dominant. The appearance and the use of "lawyer" indicate a shift of political power not only in the language of the English ruling class and legal system, but on the world scene as well. Also, documents written in English tend towards a preponderance of Latin-based words, thus attorney appears more frequently. Spoken English leans more toward Anglo-Saxon and Germanic-based words, hence the preference for lawyer.

In the historical development of the term, lawyer and attorney are just two of several used to indicate the limitations placed on someone in the legal profession. In Britain, a solicitor gives legal advice while a barrister appears in court. At times, lawyer is identified as the profession while attorney is the designation of the status of the person representing someone else's rights. Arguments exist that there must be a difference because the terms are not interchangeable, thus "Attorney General" and "attorney-at-Law", rather than "Lawyer General" and "lawyer-at-law". A quick examination reveals however, that the former term is a French derivative, and the latter term is redundant. The term "power of attorney", instead of "power of lawyer", returns to the etymological origin of the word: "someone appointed, or assigned".

In today's world, other than as an exercise in etymological studies and historical development, there is no difference between an attorney and a lawyer. When a client hires a lawyer, he or she is getting an attorney. But if a client prefers an attorney, a lawyer is also provided.

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