Usually, we use the terms “attorney” and “lawyer” interchangeably, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But is there really a difference between the words?
Imagine Joseph and Jennifer
After law school, Joseph promptly passed the bar exam and was admitted to practice law. He has a thriving practice with many clients. He is both a lawyer and an attorney.
While Jennifer was in law school, she started a business. She graduated with excellent grades, but never sat for the bar exam. Instead, she has worked as the CEO of her very successful business. Jennifer may be a lawyer, but perhaps not an attorney in the historical sense.
The root word “attorn” has meant to act for another going as far back as 1292. An attorney is appointed privately or authorized by law to act for another entity in law or business. Some documents from the 17th century mention a wife acting as attorney for her husband.
Practitioners routinely create power-of-attorney documents for non-lawyers. Depending on how the power is drafted, an attorney-in-fact can exercise general powers to do almost anything or may have limited powers. Use the full title for an attorney-in-fact. Describing that person simply as an attorney would create confusion.
States license lawyers to act for their clients, turning them into attorneys-at-law, i.e., authorized to act for another. Perhaps you have also had occasion to simultaneously act as an attorney-in-fact for your client; for example, at a real estate closing the client could not attend. Even if you have a general power of attorney from your client, some states may require the client’s own signature on documents such as settlement agreements.
Attorney and Non-Attorney Lawyers
Lawyers are people who are knowledgeable about law. They do not necessarily represent others. The first known use of the word dates to 1377. In ancient Greece and Rome, lawyers who spoke for another were termed “friends.” They were not allowed to earn a fee until the mid-first century.
Another definition of “lawyer” is someone engaged in the business of law, i.e., someone who is also an attorney. Thinking of these words as exact synonyms is common, so we frequently modify the term to clarify someone’s status. We say the person is a non-practicing, a disbarred, or, jocularly, a reformed lawyer. Once you retire, you may not be representing people anymore, but you’ll still be a lawyer.
Lawyer Joseph is an attorney because he represents clients. Jennifer is not authorized to act for another, so maybe she is not strictly an attorney. But if people use that word to describe her background, no one is going to make an issue of it.
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