Attorney vs. Lawyer: What Are the Differences?

Updated July 31, 2023

There are many fulfilling and challenging career paths within the legal industry. Two common roles in this field are that of an attorney and a lawyer. Though these positions share some similarities, there are several key differences between them.

In this article, we discuss the differences between an attorney and a lawyer, and we provide additional legal professions you may be interested in pursuing.

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What is an attorney?

An attorney is someone who has graduated from law school and passed the bar exam in the state in which they practice law. In this role, an attorney can act as the legal representation for their clients in a court of law. Additional duties of an attorney include interpreting federal and state laws, applying their knowledge of the law to meet the needs of their clients and keeping careful records that outline their interactions with clients and other legal professionals.

What is a lawyer?

A lawyer is someone who has been educated in the law and has completed law school. They can provide legal advice to others, but they cannot represent clients in court because they have not passed the bar exam. Some lawyers work under attorneys to gain experience in a law firm setting while preparing to take the bar exam. Others choose not to pursue a career as an attorney and work as a consultant or a government advisor without having to take the bar exam.

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What is the difference between a lawyer and an attorney?

It is helpful to remember that all attorneys are lawyers, but not all lawyers are attorneys. The major difference is that attorneys can represent clients in court and other legal proceedings, while lawyers cannot.

Education and licensure

The key distinction between these two professionals is the way they use their education. An attorney has taken and passed the bar exam, while a lawyer may or may not have completed this exam. The bar exam is administered by the state's bar association and includes questions that test the knowledge of state-specific laws and general legal principles. The exam typically spans two or three days and takes a lot of time to prepare.

Both lawyers and attorneys have graduated from law school. Coursework in law school focuses on federal and state laws, past cases and how to apply logic and analysis to individual client needs.

In most cases, students who graduate from law school will earn a Juris Doctor (JD) degree. This is the degree that many lawyers and attorneys hold. Another option is the Master of Laws (LLM) degree, which is an advanced certification that gives the holder credibility on a global scale. The curriculum of an LLM program depends on the university offering it. Some focus on international and comparative law, while others include specialized courses in subfields, such as human rights law, tax law, international environmental law or intellectual property.

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While attending law school, both lawyers and attorneys choose to specialize in an area of the law. When practicing, an individual in either role can provide legal advice and support in the specialization they chose. Some of the most common fields include:

  • Real estate law

  • Family law

  • Criminal law

  • Intellectual property law

  • General law

  • Corporate and business law

  • Tax law

  • Bankruptcy law

  • Civil rights law

  • Environmental law

  • Immigration law

  • Labor and employment law

  • Personal injury law

Although law school provides a general overview of all the areas of the law, lawyers and attorneys go through additional training and education in their area of focus to gain more experience and knowledge. Attorneys typically only consult with and provide their services to clients whose cases pertain to their chosen field of law.

Job titles

There are several paths for both lawyers and attorneys to pursue.

For lawyers, some paths include legal consultants and legal regulatory specialists. Lawyers may find employment in corporations, government agencies or nonprofit organizations. Some may choose to pursue a career in education as well.

For attorneys, several career paths are influenced by a professional's specialization, location, level of experience and professional goals.

Related: Guide: How to Choose a Career

Jobs for lawyers

Here are some careers you might consider as a lawyer.

1. Legal officer

National average salary: $80,923 per year

Primary duties: A legal officer monitors all the legal affairs within an organization, handling both internal and external affairs and concerns. The main duties include providing legal advice, performing research, processing and developing legal documents and identifying potential risks to the organization.

2. Lawyer

National average salary: $70,294 per year

Primary duties: Lawyers provide legal advice to others, including individuals, businesses and government agencies. They may also interpret rulings, regulations and laws and prepare legal documents.

3. Legal counsel lawyer

National average salary: $128,630 per year

Primary duties: A legal counsel lawyer provides guidance and advice for a corporation or organization. They serve as the in-house legal compliance resource, as well as aid the members of the organization in all legal-related needs.

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Jobs for attorneys

Here are some common careers you can pursue as an attorney.

1. Staff attorney

National average salary: $69,675 per year

Primary duties: A staff attorney works for a specific organization as a member of its staff and is responsible for managing the legal services needed by that company. Duties include performing analysis and research of legal issues and laws, providing training for professional development, managing contracts and employment agreements and protecting an organization's legal rights.

2. Litigation attorney

National average salary: $101,920 per year

Primary duties: A litigation attorney represents their clients in court cases, mediations, administrative law proceedings and arbitrations. They spend their time preparing to present cases in court, as well as reviewing past cases, preparing paperwork, meeting with new clients and handling complex legal needs.

3. Patent attorney

National average salary: $139,559 per year

Primary duties: A patent attorney helps inventors negotiate for and obtain the legal rights to their inventions. They inform their clients on what is included within their intellectual property and they often draft patent applications. They may also represent their clients in cases of patent infringement.

Frequently asked questions

What are the salaries for attorneys and lawyers?

The national average salary for an attorney is $97,879 per year, while a lawyer has an average salary of $96,557 per year. Although the average earnings have a slight difference, you may earn more or less depending on your years of experience, employer, location and skills. For the most up-to-date salary information from Indeed, click on the links provided.

What is the job outlook for attorneys and lawyers?

The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) includes data about attorneys with its lawyer information. The BLS projects employment opportunities for lawyers to grow by 10% between 2021 and 2031. This growth rate is faster than many occupations in the nation. With this increase, you may see about 48,700 job openings annually.

What are some skills for lawyers and attorneys?

Some soft skills and technical knowledge for these roles include:

  • Knowledge of the law and business

  • Knowledge of legal research and drafting

  • Knowledge of conflict resolution

  • Knowledge of ethics

  • Leadership skills

  • Time management skills

  • Problem-solving skills

  • Written and oral communication skills

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