Lawyer vs. Attorney vs. Counselor: Is there a difference?

Early on in my career, I kept puzzling over why I was called a “lawyer,” but my bar license says “Attorney and Counselor at law.” It seemed puzzling to me and since I wasn’t busy enough with trying to run a law firm, I started doing some digging. Where did “lawyer” come from? What was the difference between “lawyer” and “attorney”? and why was I also a “counselor” at law? These seem like pretty basic questions, but they really mattered to me.


Not who I wanted to be

What I found interesting was that in United Kingdom, attorneys/lawyers have different names. The UK has solicitors and barristers. These are two different professions. A solicitor gives legal advice, while a barrister appears in court. Having read that, I KNEW I didn’t want to be a barrister! But in the US, we don’t have the same distinction in the profession. As a licensed attorney, I can choose to do either (in the states where I’m licensed.)

Attorney and lawyer do not have the same distinction. Lawyer comes from Middle English, around the 14th Century or so, and now means “a person whose profession is to represent clients in a court of law or to advice or act for clients in other legal matters.(1). Lawyer appears to be a modification of the word “law.” Whereas, attorney comes Old French attorne, also around the 14th Century, and is defined as, “a lawyer; attorney-at-law.” (2).  Attorne in Old French meant “appointed” or “assigned.”

What’s interesting is that this exercise in etymology (aka, the history of words) shows us why we have an “Attorney General” and a “Power of Attorney,” rather than a “Lawyer General” and “Power of Lawyer.” Both the AG and the POA stem from the Old French attorn, which meant “to appoint.” Following this logic, these powers refer to someone appointed or assigned to a position. (3).

Having taken the time to read all of that… there is no difference. I already knew that, but I really wanted to understand what the titles meant. I learned why “Power of Attorney” is misleading. You can have the “Power” without being an attorney. I can now better explain that to my clients.

But what I didn’t solve was the “Counselor at Law” part of my title. I now understand “attorney” and “lawyer” to be interchangeable, but how does “counselor” affect my life choice? Well…the answer was staring me right in the face. (If you haven’t noticed it, that’s perfectly alright.) Attorney-at-law and Counselor-at-Law have the same distinction as barrister and solicitor. It’s just less formal.

Traditionally, when you first speak to a lawyer, they act as your legal counselor. They are advising you (counseling you) as to your rights, providing solutions, and helping you develop a game plan. If you decide you need to enforce those rights through litigation, your lawyer is now acting as an attorney. Your lawyer has been appointed to represent you in court, before a tribunal, in a mediation or arbitration, or whatever else is happening.

So … having read all that, I learned that I really am all three and that all three are interchangeable. That being said, understanding the history behind the profession, how it has progressed through the English Common Law through to the American legal system of today, I also understand that even though the terms are interchangeable, the job functions are not the same. It helped me focus on what I wanted my career to be and how I wanted to work with my clients.

(1) “lawyer,” in Easton’s 1897 Bible Dictionary. Source location:  Available:  Accessed: March 09, 2016.

(2) “attorney,” in Online Etymology Dictionary. Source location: Douglas Harper, Historian.  Available:  Accessed: March 09, 2016.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s