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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).
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the difference between a lawyer and an attorney?
Although common parlance may use either lawyer or attorney interchangeably, there is a nuanced distinction between the two. A lawyer is a person who has gone to and graduated from law school. They might not have taken and passed the bar test needed to practice law in your state. While lawyers are able to offer advise, they are not able to actually represent clients in court unless they have also obtained the appropriate licensing. On the other hand, an attorney is someone who has gone through the necessary training and examinations to practice law and represent clients in court. To become an attorney, one must first pass the bar examination in the state or territory in which they intend to practice law.
Hence, while all lawyers can be classified as attorneys, not all attorneys can be classified as lawyers.
What is the difference between a lawyer and a barrister?
When referring to someone who works in the legal field, the term "lawyer" is often used as a catchall. Barristers, on the other hand, are a subset of attorneys who are able to represent clients in court. The terms "lawyer" and "attorney" are synonymous in certain nations, such as the United States, but in others, such as the United Kingdom, there are clear distinctions between them. Advocates who have earned the title of "barrister" in the United Kingdom are qualified to practice law before the highest courts in that country. Sometimes referred to simply as "advocates," these professionals operate independently by taking on matters presented to them by solicitors or by clients themselves.
In contrast, British solicitors are responsible for advising clients, drafting legal documents, and appearing in subordinate courts on their behalf. Their scope of practice is larger than that of barristers, and they deal with matters such as buying and selling property legally. Solicitors give legal advice, produce documents, and represent clients in lesser courts, whereas barristers specialize in advocating for their clients in the highest courts.
Why do some people call lawyers "esquires"?
In any situation, a lawyer is addressed as either an attorney or an esquire. But "attorney" can be used to describe any legal professional, while "esquire" is usually only used to describe people who are licensed to practice law in a certain state or territory. In contrast to an attorney, who just meets the requirements to practice law, an esquire has actually been admitted to the local bar.
A lawyer and a barrister have distinct roles in the legal system, but what are they?
There is a significant difference between a barrister and a lawyer. Unlike the more general term "lawyer," which refers to someone who is knowledgeable about the law, "barrister" refers specifically to lawyers who practice in the courtroom. While lawyers might choose to focus on one area of law or practice in several, barristers spend the majority of their time in court and are often tasked with representing clients in more difficult matters.
What's the difference between a lawyer and a solicitor?
There is a difference between lawyers and solicitors in the United Kingdom, for example. Anyone who has received formal legal education and is licensed to practice law can be considered a lawyer. A solicitor, on the other hand, is a specific kind of attorney who gives legal counsel, drafts legal pleadings, and appears in court on behalf of clients.
Solicitors help their clients with concerns that fall outside of criminal law, such as estate planning, buying and selling property, and drafting contracts for businesses. Moreover, they are able to represent their clients in court and provide them with legal counsel and direction.
As opposed to general practitioners, barristers focus solely on client advocacy. Solicitors in the United Kingdom usually have their clients hire barristers to represent them in court. Barristers are highly experienced advocates who are taught to deliver cases eloquently in court, and they typically have competence in specific areas of law.
For the most part, solicitors work with clients on civil matters and can represent them in court, whereas barristers focus on criminal matters and are often instructed by solicitors to represent their clients in court.