Difference Between Lawyer and Attorney

If you need legal advice, you may search for an attorney. You may also see references to lawyers. Is there a difference?

In the United States, the terms “lawyer” and “attorney” are generally used interchangeably. However, the traditional definitions of these words have a significant difference. 

Lawyers and attorneys have studied law and obtained a legal degree. Historically, a lawyer may or may not have been admitted to practice law. Attorneys, on the other hand, passed a bar examination and met the qualifications to be admitted to practice law. 

What Are the Qualifications to Practice Law in California?

An attorney must be licensed by the California State Bar to give legal advice and practice law within the state. The California Business and Professions Code sets the requirements for admissions to the State Bar. 

Attorneys must review the requirements to ensure they meet each one when they apply for admission to the State Bar. 

In general, a California attorney must:

Individuals who are unsure whether they meet the pre-legal education requirements can file an Application for Evaluation of Pre-Legal Education with the State Bar.

Most people who become attorneys obtain a legal degree from an ABA-accredited law school. However, California permits applicants to obtain their legal education in several other ways.

Other ways that a person might obtain the required legal education include:

  • Four years of study at fixed-facility law school accredited by the state
  • Foreign education 
  • Four years of study (at least 864 hours) from a registered unaccredited distance-learning or correspondence law school
  • Four years of study supervised by an attorney or a state judge

Applicants may also have a combination of the above sources of legal education.

Social Security Number

Applicants must have a valid Social Security Number when applying to practice law in California. If a person does not have a Social Security number, they must submit a request for an exemption. 

Bar Examinations 

Applicants must pass the California Bar Examination and the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination to become licensed attorneys. 

Moral Character

All applicants must pass a background check. They must also receive a favorable determination for moral character. 

Qualities evaluated for moral character include, not limited to:

  • Fairness
  • Honesty
  • Candor
  • Respect for the law
  • Trustworthiness
  • Obedience of the law
  • Respect for the rights of others
  • Respect for the judicial process

Applicants must also comply with family court orders for domestic support.

What is the Unauthorized Practice of Law?

In California, if a person gives legal advice or represents someone in court without a license from the State Bar, they can be charged with the unauthorized practice of law. The charge is a crime under the Business & Professions Code §6125. It is punishable with a fine of up to $1,000 and up to one year in county jail. The penalties for some cases of unauthorized practice of law could be more severe. 

The offense is a wobbler under California law when it involves former attorneys who have been:

  • Suspended
  • Disbarred
  • Involuntarily listed as inactive OR
  • Resigned from the bar

In these cases, former attorneys could be charged with a misdemeanor or a felony for the unauthorized practice of law. They could face up to three years in jail if the court finds them guilty.

Do I Need to Hire an Attorney to Help Me with My Case?

It may be difficult to know whether you should hire an attorney to assist you with an employment law or workers’ compensation case. 

Reasons that you might want to consider consulting with a lawyer include:

  • A lawyer explains your legal rights and the process of filing claims and complaints.
  • An attorney understands the legal process and requirement for filing claims
  • A lawyer understands the law governing your situation and how to use the law to your advantage.
  • Employers and insurance companies are not working in your favor. 
  • You need to understand your options and the compensation you are entitled to receive for unlawful acts by employers or workers’ compensation insurance companies.
  • An attorney monitors the deadlines for filing claims and lawsuits. If you do not file your lawsuit before the deadline set by law, you lose your right to seek legal recourse for wrongdoing and damages.

One of the most important reasons to hire an attorney is to have the support and guidance of someone who has your best interest as their only priority. An attorney fights for justice for you, which is what you need when a party causes you harm or damages.