Attorney vs. Lawyer: What's the Difference?

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated December 14, 2022

Published July 26, 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.

Although both attorneys and lawyers practise in the field of law, these two roles share several key differences. While pursuing a career as an attorney requires taking and passing the bar examination, many lawyers may choose not to do so. Additionally, your salary and role within your career can differ, depending on the profession you choose to pursue. In this article, we discuss what attorneys and lawyers are and the differences between an attorney versus a lawyer, with several job titles for you to explore.

What is an attorney?

An attorney is a law professional who has graduated from law school and passed the bar exam in the jurisdiction in which they practise law. In this role, an attorney can act as the legal representative for clients in a court of law. Attorneys also have the qualifications necessary to prosecute and defend actions while in court. Additional duties of an attorney include interpreting local and national laws, applying their knowledge of the law to meet the needs of their clients, and keeping careful records that outline their interactions with clients and other legal professionals.

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What is a lawyer?

A lawyer is a law professional who completes law school and their education and training in law. Lawyers can provide legal advice to clients, but they cannot represent clients in court because they have not passed the bar exam. Some lawyers work under supervising attorneys to gain experience in a law firm setting while preparing to take the bar exam. Others choose not to pursue a career as an attorney and work as a consultant or a government advisor without having to take the bar exam.

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Attorney vs. lawyer

When pursuing your career in the field of law, consider the differences between an attorney and a lawyer to better understand your role, responsibilities, and requirements:

Education

Although both attorneys and lawyers complete law school, one of the major differences between an attorney and a lawyer are how the two professionals apply their education in their careers. For instance, while both attorneys and lawyers obtain a Juris Doctor (JD) degree, many attorneys often pursue the Master of Laws (LLM) degree, which signifies their advanced knowledge of specific laws and the general legal principles of their jurisdictions.

Licensing

Typically, attorneys already have taken and passed the bar exam, while lawyers often have yet to complete their examinations. Attorneys who take and pass their bar exams can use the credential “esquire” when describing their level of law practice. While most bar associations do not provide this credential, some often recognize it as a signifier that an attorney has completed their bar examination and has the required licence to practise in their field of law.

Even though lawyers can pursue advancement to the role of practising attorney, some choose to remain in law studies as legal consultants, government advisors, and other roles in law that require their level of knowledge and expertise.

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Field of specialization

Another difference between an attorney and a lawyer is the field of law in which they can specialize. When attending law school, both attorneys and lawyers choose an area of law to specialize in and focus on their careers. However, when practising law, lawyers can only provide legal assistance, advice, and counselling to their clients while an attorney can represent clients in court and initiate defendant prosecutions in addition to providing legal counsel and consultation. While many law schools provide a general overview of all areas of law, attorneys and lawyers can choose to specialize in common fields of law, including:

  • general law

  • business and corporate law

  • tax law

  • bankruptcy law

  • intellectual property law

  • family law

  • criminal law

  • real estate law

  • civil rights law

  • labour and employment law

  • personal injury law

  • immigration law

While lawyers can provide counsel in a vast majority of these fields, attorneys typically only focus on their selected specialization when working with their clients and in a court of law.

Work environment

The environment that attorneys and lawyers work in can also vary. For instance, many lawyers work under the supervision of practising attorneys, where they perform many of their job functions in a law firm, private attorney's practice, or government agency. Attorneys, however, work between both an office in a law firm or private law practice and the courtroom when representing or defending clients in a court of law. Additionally, many attorneys may work longer hours than a lawyer, since these professionals are the individuals responsible for creating legal documents, providing legal counsel, and preparing for and participating in court proceedings.

Job titles

The job titles can also differ between lawyers and attorneys. For instance, an attorney typically pursues a job title that reflects the specific area of law they practise, and an attorney's location, level of experience, and professional goals often influence the roles they pursue. For lawyers, though, career paths can include roles like legal consultants, legal regulatory specialists, and legal advisors. Lawyers' job titles often reflect roles in counselling, consulting, advising, and preparing.

Average salary

The salary averages differ slightly between practising attorneys and lawyers, too. An attorney who passes their bar examination and enters their specialty can expect an average income of $83,066 per year, while lawyers may earn up to $87,570 per year. The slight variance in income averages can be due to several factors.

For instance, since a lawyer can give legal counsel and consult with clients within many fields of law, they may expect a slightly higher income average than attorneys because of their wide-ranging expertise and knowledge of general law. Since many attorneys specialize in a single law field, their income may reflect the narrow scope of focus. Additionally, your level of experience, credentials, location, and employer can all influence how much you make when you enter your career.

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Jobs for attorneys

When considering a career as an attorney, there are a few job titles that can support your career path, including:

1. Corporate attorney

National average salary: $75,589 per year

Primary duties: A corporate attorney is responsible for structuring transactions, drafting legal documents, negotiating deals, attending legal briefings, and making client calls to meet the goals of the specific cases they work on. These legal professionals also provide legal consultation and counsel to businesses that are undergoing legal proceedings. Corporate attorneys may often appear in a court of law to defend or initiate prosecution charges on behalf of business clients.

2. Staff attorney

National average salary: $108,950 per year

Primary duties: Staff attorneys typically work for specific organizations as members of staff and are responsible for the management of a company's legal services. Many staff attorneys perform legal research and analysis regarding legal issues and laws, and they also provide training and mentorship for professional development programs within their companies. A staff attorney may also manage the contracts and employment agreements of their organization to better protect the organization's legal rights.

3. Litigation attorney

National average salary: $217,983 per year

Primary duties: Litigation attorneys represent clients in court proceedings, mediations, administrative law proceedings and arbitration. Litigation attorneys can spend the majority of their time preparing cases for court, reviewing past cases, preparing legal documents, meeting with clients, and overseeing complex legal activities.

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Jobs for lawyers

If you choose to pursue a career as a lawyer, these are some of the jobs you may consider:

1. Immigration lawyer

National average salary: $70,019 per year

Primary duties: An immigration lawyer provides guidance and legal advice to clients about permanent resident cards, citizenship, naturalization, and visa applications. These legal professionals often work with clients to help them better understand the processes for various immigration activities, such as employment for non-citizens and matters regarding deportation. Because of their bar status, immigration lawyers typically perform consultation and counsel services in law rather than appearing in court.

2. Tax lawyer

National average salary: $85,570 per year

Primary duties: Tax lawyers specialize in tax law and provide counsel and legal advice to clients regarding tax preparation, tax documents, filing processes, and tax settlements. These lawyers help clients handle legal tax matters and provide guidance on CRA determinations, such as wage garnishment, returns clients haven't filed, property liens, account levies, and other tax proceedings to establish compromises with the CRA.

3. Family lawyer

National average salary: $92,806 per year

Primary duties: Family lawyers focus on family and divorce law, where they provide legal services to counsel and guide clients through family issues like divorce, alimony, and child custody matters. A family lawyer often meets with clients to mediate divorce proceedings, including matters on adoption, child custody, and other issues that result from divorce filings. Family lawyers typically draft and finalize legal documents that focus on custody agreements, living wills and testaments, prenuptial agreements, and other legal documents affecting families.

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

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