One question many people ask is whether or not there is a difference between a lawyer and an attorney. While the question is simple, the answer is a bit more complex. At the surface level, meaning the way the two terms are used interchangeably, the answer is no, there is no difference between a lawyer and an attorney. You can call someone who practices law a lawyer. You can also call them an attorney.

However, technically speaking, there is a difference between the two words. A lawyer is a person who has been trained in the law and has graduated from an accredited law school. 

On the other hand, an attorney is someone who has gone a step further. In addition to graduating from an accredited law school, an attorney has also passed the bar exam and is licensed to practice law in a particular jurisdiction. Because of this distinction, there are several things attorneys can do that lawyers cannot.

What Can Attorneys Do That Lawyers Cannot

Even if a person doesn’t take or pass the bar exam and get their license to practice law in a state, a law degree is still a worthwhile endeavor. A lawyer can still use their knowledge of the law and their law degree to write policy papers, for example. Lawyers might also be hired as consultants and can advise clients effectively given their legal education (though giving legal advice could be considered practicing without a license).

An attorney, however, has far more they can do. For example, an attorney can execute contracts, and represent car accident victims before a judge in the court of law, and . This is the main function of an attorney and what most individuals envision when they go to law school. Additionally, because an attorney can also do everything a lawyer can do, they can and are often called both a lawyer and an attorney.

The Process of Becoming an Attorney

The journey to becoming an attorney is a long one and can be quite expensive. After graduating with a four-year undergraduate degree (or while they are still in school), an individual often needs to take the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT). A good LSAT score is crucial to getting into a good law school. 

After the LSAT, comes law school, which lasts three years and includes rigorous examinations multiple times each year, in addition to extracurricular activities such as writing for or editing a school’s law journal. 

Upon graduation from law school, an individual is now a lawyer, however, they are not yet an attorney (the exception to this is law school grads in Wisconsin where diploma privilege is practiced). The reward for three difficult years of study is a summer of countless hours preparing for the bar exam. 

Not all bar exams are the same and the difficulty of each depends on the jurisdiction. It is not uncommon for passage rates to be as low as 70 percent or lower. Those who do pass the bar exam and meet a state’s ethical requirements (usually meaning they have never committed a felony) now have the right to apply for admission to the bar and begin practicing law.

New York does have an additional requirement that was recently added. Before being allowed to practice law in the state, applicants need to perform 50 hours of pro bono legal service

Finally, in order to keep up their license to practice law, an attorney needs to complete a certain number of continuing legal education hours per year and pay a licensing fee. While the road to becoming an attorney is long (and in a sense never-ending) the ability to represent clients and help them attain justice makes it well worth the effort.