Thursday, 29 July 2004

Lawyers and Attorneys

Eugene Volokh, defending the legal profession from charges that the This song is your song controversy is all the lawyers’ fault, writes:

But at most what we have here is a few special lawyers-by-training -- many of whom are no longer even lawyers in private service, but are lawmakers of one sort or another -- making unsound decisions. We do not have some general ethical failing on the part of the legal profession as a whole.

I don’t have anything substantive to say about Prof. Volokh’s post, but this does give me an opportunity to advance a linguistic mission of mine: to bring about a distinction between the words lawyer and attorney.

Now I’m not claiming this is distinction is found standard American English, but I think it would be a good distinction to make.

If we make the distinction, a lawyer is a person who has a certain professional training, whereas an attorney is a person, usually a lawyer, who represents people in their legal affairs.

An attorney is not necessarily a lawyer. Judges and law clerks are almost always lawyers, but (at least in the federal judiciary), they are not permitted to be attorneys. And someone who decides to represent himself in a legal matter is his own attorney, even though he may not be a lawyer.

We may make a similar distinction between doctor and physician. Senator Bill "Cat Murderer" Frist is a doctor, since he has a medical degree, but he is no longer a physician.


Any views expressed in these comments are solely those of their authors; they do not reflect the views of the authors of Signifying Nothing, unless attributed to one of us.

Ah, but where do solicitor and barrister some in? And I think there’s a further distinction to be made between those with the degree juris doctor and those who are lawyers—after all, you can be a J.D. yet not have passed the bar; ask Harold Ford, Jr.


No U.S. jurisdictions I’m aware of maintain the distinction between barristers and solicitors, as England does. As to attorneys vs. lawyers, attorneys act as representatives of clients, while lawyers need not. Strictly speaking, not all attorneys are lawyers, either. Attorneys at law are lawyers, but anyone who is granted power of attorney can be an attorney in fact.


It’s a vague matter whether anyone with a J.D. qualifies to be a lawyer. I’d give Ford the benefit of the doubt, though. Most fresh-out-of-law-school law clerks haven’t passed the bar exam either, but I’d say they’re all lawyers.

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