Perhaps no other profession has as many variations in titles than that of lawyer. The titles attorney, lawyer, barrister and Esquire are frequently used, sometimes interchangeably, in the field of law. However, by definition, each has a unique meaning.
Generally speaking, an attorney, or attorney-at-law, is a person who is a member of the legal profession. An attorney is qualified and licensed to represent a client in court. By most definitions, an attorney may act on the client’s behalf and plead or defend a case in legal proceedings. The English word attorney has French origins, where it meant “a person acting for another as an agent or deputy.”
A lawyer, by definition, is someone who is trained in the field of law and provides advice and aid on legal matters. Because a lawyer also conducts suits in court proceedings and represents clients in various legal instances, the term has expanded to overlap the definition of attorney. In the U.S., attorney and lawyer are normally considered synonyms. The term lawyer has Middle English roots.
In the U.K, even more job titles are used in the field of law; there are barristers and solicitors, among others. A barrister generally performs trial work, especially in the higher courts, and does not deal directly with clients. A solicitor, on the other hand, speaks with clients, prepares documents and may appear as an advocate in a lower court.
Finally, Esquire is a title sometimes used by attorneys. When used, it follows the attorney’s full name, and is most often an abbreviation, Esq. It is an honorary title that has little meaning in the U.S. today and is even somewhat controversial. The term Esquire has English roots, where it was considered an honorary title and originally referred only to males. It is now used as a professional title, similar to the use of Dr. or Ph.D.
In the U.S., each state administers the exam required to license attorneys. The American Bar Association is a voluntary, professional organization to which many attorneys belong.
Barrister vs Lawyer
While the word "lawyer" in the U.S. and Canada is a general term referring to any person who has the appropriate academic degree and is licensed to practice law, a barrister in the U.K. is a more specialized job description. In many ways, English barristers are most similar to U.S. trial lawyers; unlike other legal professionals in the U.K., they can argue a case before a judge and jury. They also have what is known as the "right of audience" before the country's higher courts, meaning they can present cases and conduct proceedings. Solicitors, on the other hand, can only appear in county or magistrates courts except under special conditions. (Since 1999, U.K. law has also made an exception for solicitors who are employees of a private company.) Another distinction between a barrister and a lawyer: under U.K. law, a barrister must be a sole practitioner and is not allowed to form partnerships or work for a corporate legal department.
In the U.S., virtually anyone can argue a case in court, even if they don't have a law degree. However, this rarely happens (and the case almost never goes well for the layperson attorney). Nonetheless, if a tax or contract lawyer has a client who wants them to serve as their counsel in court, there are no rules preventing them. The reality is that while a tax lawyer may be called upon to provide testimony or serve as an expert, he or she will leave the actual court proceedings and arguments to an experienced trial lawyer. A U.S. trial lawyer may also be a sole practitioner or be employed by a law firm.
Attorney vs Lawyer
If "lawyer" is a general term, "attorney" is even more so; its definition goes beyond that of a licensed legal professional. While all lawyers serve as attorneys as they represent another person's legal interests, not every attorney is a lawyer. Most people have encountered the term "power of attorney" (usually abbreviated as POA). This means that one person has been granted the authority to make decisions on part of another. That person is known as the "attorney in fact," meaning they have the legal right to act on behalf of the party who appointed them.
When one or more individuals grant POA to another individual, it usually means that someone is incapable of making their own decisions. For example, Joe has his lawyer draw up a "Do Not Resuscitate" (DNR) order in case he is rendered unconscious by an injury or illness. In such a situation, the person who has been granted POA then has the duty to enforce the DNR by informing medical personnel that the patient does not wish to be kept alive with artificial means. Another situation arises when an aging parent suffers from dementia. A younger family member( such as an adult son or daughter) must be prepared to handle the parent's affairs, and have the legal authority to do so.
In order to grant POA to a second party, a person must be of sound mind at the time the agreement is drawn up. Although any layperson can have power of attorney, legal documents must be drawn up by an estate lawyer or family law practitioner, then signed by all parties, and notarized.
Esquire vs Attorney
A small handful of attorneys in the U.S. add the title "esquire" after their names, but these days, it is little more than a formality. In England, esquire was a minor honorific, granted to members of the landed gentry who were higher on the social pecking order than "gentlemen," but had not yet achieved knighthood. In his 1826 tome, Commentaries on the Laws of England, jurist and politician William Blackstone wrote, "The title [esquire] should be limited to those only who bear an office of trust under the Crown."
In the U.S. during the first half of the 20th Century, esquire was a minor honorific, used primarily in formal written correspondence, i.e., business and law. However, it was only used in the address and the signature.
In the U.S., attorneys are the only people who use the title of esquire; however, it is not known exactly why this should be. It was more common prior to the 1970s. This is a clue as to why the title esquire has fallen out of fashion; historically, it has been used by and applied exclusively to men, and is often considered sexist. Beyond that, it is simply a title of respect (or pomposity, depending on one's perspective).