Attorney vs Lawyer: What's the Difference?

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated 14 September 2022 | Published 16 August 2021

Updated 14 September 2022

Published 16 August 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

There are many fulfilling and challenging career paths within the legal industry. Two common career paths in the legal field are becoming an attorney and a lawyer. Though these positions can share some similarities, there are several differences between these two careers. If you're interested in pursuing a legal career, it can be helpful to know about the differences between a lawyer and an attorney in order to help you determine which career path might best suit your interests. In this article, we consider what attorneys and lawyers do and discuss the differences between the two career paths.

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What is an attorney vs lawyer?

When comparing an attorney vs lawyer, you can distinguish several significant differences. A lawyer is someone who represents clients in court cases. Lawyers typically fall into two categories, which are solicitors and barristers. Solicitors and barristers can have very similar job duties, but their positions can differ in their primary focus. For example, solicitors usually complete legal work that takes place outside of a courtroom, like organising evidence to be used in court later and preparing legal documents, like contracts or agreements. In contrast, barristers spend more time working with clients and attending courtroom meetings, like trials and hearings.

An attorney is a type of lawyer who provides legal advice to clients. The term attorney is most commonly used as another name that people can use to refer to a solicitor. An attorney can have most of the same responsibilities as a lawyer, but they spend less time representing clients in court. This can mean that attorneys typically focus more on administrative tasks in the legal process, such as preparing important documents to use in court and offering advice to clients in an office. The exception is a patent or trademark attorney, who specialises in patent law.

Related: How To Become a Lawyer in Australia

Types of lawyers

There are three main types of lawyers who can practise law in different areas. When a lawyer decides to specialise in a particular segment of law, they typically choose from one of many subcategories that fall within the three main types, which are family lawyers, criminal lawyers and business lawyers. Here are a few more details about each of the main types of lawyers:

Family lawyer

A family lawyer focuses on helping clients navigate domestic legal situations. Family lawyers can represent clients in court, help clients reach settlements in hearings and argue criminal cases for clients who experience circumstances that involve domestic abuse or child endangerment. Here are a few more responsibilities that a family lawyer typically has:

  • Preparing prenuptial agreements

  • Drafting and distributing divorce papers for clients to sign

  • Arguing cases for child custody

  • Helping to settle disputes about inheritance and estate

  • Organising adoptions and creating paperwork, like adoption contracts

  • Representing clients in court during trials that involve family matters

Criminal lawyer

A criminal lawyer primarily represents clients who are involved in criminal cases, either as the defendant or as the prosecution. Due to the sometimes serious nature of the cases they can take part in, many criminal lawyers earn high salaries and undergo rigorous training in advanced concepts of law, such as how to develop a criminal defence argument and when to offer a plea bargain. Criminal lawyers can represent clients in cases that focus on situations like burglary, assault and possession of illegal materials, such as drugs or weapons. Here are some common responsibilities that a criminal lawyer can have:

  • Building a defence for clients accused of crimes

  • Arguing on the prosecution side for the victims of crimes

  • Developing plea agreements that can earn clients lower sentences

  • Helping clients to secure and post bail

  • Making requests for special arrangements for clients who need additional help

Related: What Does a Criminal Lawyer Do? (And How To Become One)

Business lawyer

A business lawyer, also known as a corporate or commercial lawyer, specialises in offering legal advice and representation to businesses and corporations. Business lawyers can help their clients with several different types of business transactions, such as mergers and acquisitions. They typically have extensive knowledge of business processes and regulations which can help them to support their clients in whatever situations they encounter. Here are a few job duties that a business lawyer often has:

  • Preparing paperwork for large-scale business transactions

  • Developing memorandums of agreement

  • Defending corporations and businesses when they encounter lawsuits

  • Drafting lawsuits for clients who want to sue other companies

  • Acting as in-house counsel

  • Collaborating with notaries to verify official documents

Related: What Does a Commercial Lawyer Do? 8 Common Duties (Plus Skills)

Differences between an attorney vs lawyer

Here are some of the key differences between an attorney and a lawyer:

Responsibilities

The most recognisable difference between an attorney and a lawyer is the type of responsibilities that each title typically has. For attorneys, most of their responsibilities focus on supporting other legal staff and helping clients by completing paperwork and other administrative duties. Attorneys also can offer legal advice in several areas of law, meaning they often help a wide array of clients with different situations. Some attorneys work specifically as patent or trademark attorneys, which means these professionals only work with cases that involve patent or trademark law.

For a lawyer, the responsibilities they have can rely on the specialisation they choose to pursue. For example, a lawyer who works as a barrister can defend clients in court, prepare for trials and offer legal advice about a particular area of law. In contrast, a lawyer who works as a solicitor might focus more on legal work that takes place outside of a courtroom, like organising documents and gathering evidence from archives. Many lawyers start by working as solicitors and eventually transition to working as barristers once they pass the necessary exams.

Qualifications

While both attorneys and lawyers usually attend law school, the two professions can differ in the specialised formal education they complete before starting work in the field. Attorneys, or solicitors, often need to complete additional education and training that can prepare them to offer legal advice in various areas of law. The primary credential that an attorney needs to earn before starting work is a practising certificate. To earn a practising certificate, attorneys can complete Practical Legal Training (PLT) and apply for admission to a legal practice once they fulfil between 18 and 24 months of supervised practice.

For a lawyer, more specifically for a barrister, it can be common to begin looking for employment after earning a bachelor's degree in law or a Juris Doctor degree. These degree programs educate candidates in the basic concepts of law and prepare them to defend clients in court. Because barristers typically specialise in a particular area of the law, they might also complete training or additional coursework in their chosen specialisation. Barristers also need to ensure they meet all requirements set by their state's Bar association before they can attend courtroom meetings.

Job titles

Attorneys and lawyers can also be different in the job titles that each type of professional can pursue. For attorneys, there can be fewer options for specific job titles because an attorney is typically considered a type of lawyer. One exception to this is a patent or trademark attorney, as they specialise in patent or trademark law and only use the title of attorney. An attorney can also pursue work under the job title of solicitor, as the two terms are often interchangeable.

In contrast, there are several job titles that lawyers can choose from. The two most common job titles for lawyers are solicitor and barrister. However, lawyers can also often find jobs with more focused titles that pertain directly to their area of specialisation, typically in one of the three main types of lawyers, which are family, criminal and business lawyers. For example, a lawyer who works primarily on domestic cases might look for employment as a family lawyer, while a lawyer who wants to take part in criminal cases can search for job openings for criminal lawyers.

Related: What Does a Corporate Lawyer Do? (And How To Become One)

Salary

Another common difference between attorneys and lawyers is how much money each position typically earns. For example, the national average salary for an attorney is currently $79,520 per year. This is highly competitive for a base salary.

For a lawyer, the current national average salary is $99,241 per year. Many people consider this to be an exceptionally high base salary. Lawyers often have the potential to earn more money than attorneys because lawyers can have more extensive job duties and higher-level responsibilities, such as frequently representing clients in court.

Related: How Much Do Lawyers Make? (With Career Paths and Salaries)

Salary figures reflect data listed on Indeed Salaries at time of writing. Salaries may vary depending on the hiring organisation and a candidate's experience, academic background and location.

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