What is the Difference Between a Lawyer and an Attorney?
In the U.S., the terms “lawyer” and “attorney” are used interchangeably. This suggests that their meanings are the same, but is this true?
Technically, no. Functionally, yes.
How much does a lawyer make?
According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for a lawyer is $120,910 per year or $58.13 per hour in 2018.
Historical Origins of Law in the U.S.
The technical difference between the terms “lawyer” and “attorney” seem to evolve from the historical development of the legal profession and the formalization of bar requirements. The bar is the professional association of lawyers, and the requirements for membership became more stringent as the legal profession evolved.
Beginning during the colonial times, future lawyers were educated through apprenticeships or self-study. Those wanting to become lawyers sought out apprenticeships with established lawyers.
Some apprentices did supplement their education with additional college courses, but their legal training came directly from their mentors.
At this point in history, membership to the bar was determined by each colony and was largely based on the number of years the lawyer had practiced law.
The first law school
Even after 1784 when the first private law school, The Litchfield law school, was established, legal education continued to be conferred through apprenticeships and supplemented with formal but optional schooling.
Unlike modern practice, lawyers during this time practiced law before becoming a member of the bar. In fact, a specified number of years of experience as a lawyer was essentially the only requirement for membership.
Around the late 1700s, some states were developing bar exams and, thus, formalizing bar membership; however, the path to admittance to the bar exam was still varied, with apprenticeships still being the main method by which lawyers were educated.
Law School History
During the nineteenth century, private law schools became associated with universities and their educational programs were formalized.
Eventually, time spent at a law school could and did replace apprenticeship hours. Later, law schools all but replaced apprenticeships. As of today, only four states allow for apprenticeships in preparation for the bar.
The remaining states require a law school education to sit for the bar. Law schools are now regimented, three-year programs, and graduates earn a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree.
Prior to 1768, law professionals were “lawyers.” The origin of the term means “one versed in law, one whose profession is suits in court or client advice on legal rights.” In 1768, as requirements for practicing law became more regimented, lawyers became distinct from the newly coined “attorney-at-law” (a.k.a “attorney”). The Old French meaning of the term is “one appointed to represent the interests of another.”
Eventually, lawyers were individuals who completed the study of law but did not sit for the bar exam or otherwise were not admitted as a member of the bar. This seems to be a holdover from the time when lawyers were allowed and required to practice law before becoming a member of the bar.
At this time, lawyers did not practice law in court, but they could give legal advice. In contrast, an attorney passed the bar and was licensed to practice law, which allowed him to represent a client before the court.
Some modern authors claim that a law school graduate is automatically a lawyer. As such, a lawyer has not taken or passed the bar and has no clients but has earned a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree.
A lawyer who has passed the bar AND is admitted by his jurisdiction (state) to practice law is an attorney. Yet, others contend that an attorney is not just someone who has passed and been admitted to the bar but ALSO has a client. This reasoning is based on the historical meaning of the word as “someone who represents another.”
In modern practice, no lawyer can represent a client or officially give legal advice without being a licensed attorney; because a lawyer does represent a client, then by implication, an attorney has passed the bar and is licensed to represent a client.
Based on the technical meanings of the two terms, all attorneys are lawyers, but not all lawyers are attorneys.
These technical differences between “lawyer” and “attorney” are rooted in history and have little relevance or practicality to the actual practice of law. The technical distinctions between the two terms are best reserved for those in the legal profession itself.
Outside of the legal realm, public perception tends to make no distinction between the two terms and, in fact, publicly calling one’s self a lawyer may be misleading if the lawyer is not licensed.
To the general public, a lawyer and an attorney are the same entity. Most laity does not even comprehend the educational and licensing background required of attorneys and does not consider the difference between the two.
If a J.D. represents himself as a lawyer to the public, he is vulnerable to criminal sanctions and may even be prohibited from taking the bar in the future.
When an unlicensed law school graduate represents another or formally gives legal advice, then he is practicing law without a license. If it is determined that he practiced law without a license, he may be charged with a misdemeanor or felony.
The severity of the crime depends on the state in which the event occurred. The criminal activity could also prohibit the individual from admittance to the bar should he desire to apply in the future.
What is in the name lawyer?
Unlicensed J.D.s run the risk of misleading the public when referring to themselves as lawyers. Because of this risk and the detrimental consequences, if found guilty of practicing law without a license, the technical differences between the two terms are largely irrelevant.
In practice, it behooves all unlicensed J.D.s to avoid publicly referring to themselves as lawyers until they have passed the bar and have been admitted by their state. This means that the terms “lawyer” and “attorney” should be treated as synonyms by law professionals and to mean “a law school graduate who has passed the bar exam and has been admitted to the bar by his state of jurisdiction.”
Only then can he safely represent himself as a lawyer without misleading the public about his credentials.
Conversely, those seeking representation should be vigilant about hiring a licensed attorney. Because there seems to be some confusion about the public use of the terms “lawyer” vs. “attorney,” those seeking representation should look for a legal professional who identifies himself as an “attorney” or “attorney-at-law.”
How to become a lawyer?
Becoming a lawyer may seem like a daunting task. There are a number of steps along the way. However, it is not impossible to do. Breaking up a large goal into small concrete steps is a great way to accomplish a goal.
There are five major steps to becoming an attorney.
This article is a step-by-step guide on how to become a lawyer.
Get a Bachelor’s Degree
All law schools require a bachelor’s degree. It is important to pick a subject that is not too challenging because most law schools require a grade point average(GPA) above 3.0.
An undergraduate student can pick any major they wish to study except for students that want to go into property law. These students need to study mathematics or a technical science major. This can include computer science to biology. Doing so will give students wishing to go into property law the ability to take the patent bar because it is a requirement.
Some students may consider majoring in pre-law. Some claim it is a great way to prepare for the LSAT because most pre-law professors use the Socratic method. The Socratic method is when the professor asks questions that lead to class discussion. It may also show law schools that the student is committed to becoming an attorney rather than delaying the inevitable entrance into the real world.
However, law schools, especially top schools, may see pre-law as an easy major. Writing a thesis or taking on academic research may be a way to stand out as a pre-law major. One other issue with pre-law is not many schools offer it as a major.
Law schools want well-rounded students. Having a 4.0 in computer science as opposed to pre-law is much more impressive for law schools. Any subject can be useful in law. If a student chooses to major in ecology, they may decide to become an environmental lawyer.
It is important to pick something that is enjoyable and interesting because it means better grades. Courses that involve logic and analytical skills are a great way to prepare for law school.
An English major does a lot of reading, writing and analyzing. An economic major uses a lot of logic and problem-solving skills.
Pass the LSAT
Any person wishing to go to law school must take the Law School Admission Test(LSAT). It takes half a day to complete the test. The test assesses a person’s verbal reasoning and reading skills.
If a person does not have the best GPA, a high LSAT score may improve their chances of getting into law school. The LSAT is also a great way to gain access to financial aid.
The LSAT can be taken four times a year. For those that want to apply for law school the following Fall. December is the latest option for taking the test.
Get a Juris Doctor Law Degree
The best way to become an attorney is to study at an accredited law school. Having a high GPA is the best bet for getting in. Law school is typically 3 years of full-time study. However, if a student is studying part-time, it may take them 4 to 5 years.
When choosing a law school, it is important to pick a school that focuses on the chosen field of the student. Some schools may have a clinical focus in a certain specialty. This gives law students an opportunity to gain hands-on knowledge.
If a prospective law student is not sure what field they want to study, they can check out the number of programs different law schools offer. Picking a law school that offers generous financial aid packages and programs may be a great way to offset the cost of law school.
Choose your laws school wisely
Going with a law school that has a prestigious academic reputation and the bar exam passage rates may also be some things to consider when choosing a law school.
It is important to do well in the first year of law school. This is because law firms typically hire summer associates at the start of the second year.
Take meticulous notes because there are not many assignments during law school besides the final exams. Some professors allow students to bring notes to final exams. Professors also call on students during lectures. So, it is important to be prepared for class.
Pass the MPRE
The Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam is an ethics exam that all law school graduates must take before taking the bar exam. The test is offered three times a year. It is a 60 question multiple-choice test. A law school graduate has two hours to complete the test.
The purpose of this exam is to examine the test takers knowledge of the professional conduct that is required of lawyers. Conduct is considered when admitting an attorney to the bar as well as disciplinary procedures.
The conduct of lawyers is also considered by courts when dealing with appearance, privilege, and contempt. Lawsuits may also cover malpractice and civil or criminal issues that a lawyer may have committed while in a professional context.
Pass the Bar Exam
The final step to becoming an attorney is to pass the bar exam. The bar is a difficult test with states in 2018 having an average passing rate of 54 percent.
The exam is a mixture of multiple-choice and essay questions. These questions are to evaluate the exam takers’ knowledge of state law as well as applying the law in various scenarios.
Becoming a lawyer or attorney is an arduous task. However, with preparation and incite, it is doable. Pick an undergraduate degree that is interesting. Good grades are one of the most important things when applying to law school.
Make sure enough preparation is done for the LSAT. A high LSAT score will greatly improve the chances of getting into law school. Do well at law school because it means getting work opportunities as an associate and getting the Juris doctorate. Take the MPRE. Pass the bar. Do these steps and the goal of how to be a lawyer will be completed.
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