Most people in the United States use the terms “lawyer” and “attorney” synonymously.  We use the terms as if they mean exactly the same thing. We think of both lawyers and attorneys as being legal professionals who are licensed to practice law in their state. But there are subtle differences between the two terms and those subtle differences can be important, especially when a person is looking for legal representation in a court of law. 

When you need legal advice and representation you can trust, choose wisely.

A License Makes A Difference

The difference is more than just semantics. Lawyers graduate from law school. A lawyer can consult with a client although their ability to give specific legal advice may be limited. A lawyer may provide policy or legislative analysis. A fair number of lawyers work in Washington D.C. doing just that. But for the most part, an unlicensed lawyer cannot “practice law.” 

In order to practice law, a lawyer must be licensed. Once, a lawyer is licensed, we usually refer to them as an attorney.

In some ways, this is analogous to the difference between going to med school and becoming a doctor. Graduating from medical school is one thing. A person who graduates from medical school may work in research or another medical field. But in order to practice medicine, the person must become licensed.

Bar Exams are Necessary for Licensure

Almost every state in the U.S. requires that a lawyer pass an examination in order to practice law in that state. This is often referred to as the bar exam. The exams are grueling, usually taking multiple days to complete. At the end of the exam, if you pass, you may practice law in that state. In order to practice law in another state, one must usually pass the bar exam for that state.

Wisconsin is the only state that will allow a person to practice law without having passed the bar exam under certain circumstances. Wisconsin allows a person to practice law if they have graduated from an accredited law school in the Badger State. There are only two such schools in Wisconsin. Otherwise, one must pass the bar exam in order to practice law in the state.

Practicing Law Without Attending Law School

On the other end of the spectrum are states that will allow a person to take the bar exam without ever having to attend law school.  Instead of attending law school and paying the attending costs, these students of the law do what is known as reading the law

Reading the law is somewhat like engaging in an apprenticeship program. An apprentice may work part-time at a law firm while reading the law and gain experience in the various aspects of a law practice.  An apprentice can also escape the high cost of law school.

States that allow a person to read the law include California, Virginia, Vermont, and Washington. When a person reads the law, they work closely with a supervising attorney. This takes longer than a traditional law school. 

For example, in California, the requirements include 4 years of study in a law office. The apprentice must read the law at least 18 hours per week and have 5 hours of direct supervision. The apprentice must also have monthly exams and the supervising attorney must send bi-annual progress reports to the State Bar Association. 

Finally, the bar passage rate for apprentices is often lower. It’s usually somewhere between 20% and 30%, as opposed to upwards of 80% for law school graduates.

Differences in Duties Between a Lawyer and an Attorney

Licensure is necessary to appear in a court of law representing a client. But the basic difference lies in the scope of what it means to “practice law” rather than in appearing in a courtroom. The American Bar Association has a Model definition which defines the practice of law as applying legal principles and judgment to another’s circumstances or objectives which requires the knowledge and skill of a person trained in the law.

The same Model definition goes on to state that a person is presumed to be practicing law when acting on behalf of another and performing any of the following:

  • Counseling or advising another regarding legal rights or responsibilities
  • Preparing any legal documents or agreements which affect another’s legal rights
  • Representing a person before a judge or other fact-finding body, which includes filing legal documents and conducting discovery; or
  • Negotiating another’s legal rights or responsibilities.

These are all tasks that require a licensed attorney. A lawyer may engage in tasks that require legal training but cannot engage in activities that may affect a person’s legal rights or responsibilities. For example, a lawyer may be a legislative analyst. That lawyer may engage in research and analysis regarding the probable effect of a piece of legislation. But that lawyer may not represent a person in a court of law. That would constitute the practice of law.

Conclusions

When it comes time to get legal help, who you choose really matters. Whether you get hurt in a car accident or suffer an injury on the job, you need professional, licensed, and experienced representation.  You want to have a licensed attorney with you every step of the way.