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The English word attorney has French source, where it meant “a person acting for another as an agent or representative.” In the United States, an attorney at law is a person authorized to practice law by the highest court of a state or other jurisdiction. An attorney is skilled, licensed to represent a client in court and may act on the client’s behalf and advocate or defend a case in legal proceedings. Variation words include attorney-at-law, attorney and counselor (or counsellor) at law, attorney, and lawyer.

The U.S. legal structure has a united legal career, and does not draw a difference between lawyers who plead in court and those who do not.

Difference between an attorney-in-fact and attorney-at-law

An attorney in fact is an individual who has been conferred authority by way of a power of attorney to act on behalf of another person. In some cases, this authority is conferred for a specified period of time, while in other instance; the individual may function as the attorney in fact until the privilege is revoked.

An attorney-at-law, or lawyer, is a person qualified and licensed by a important jurisdiction to practice law: to represent clients in legal issues and to give legal recommendation. In the United States, the term attorney, standing alone, usually refers to this meaning rather than "attorney-in-fact".

Difference between an attorney-at-law and Attorney General

An Attorney General is the chief law enforcement officer of a country, state or other political jurisdiction. The attorney general is the main legal adviser to the government apart from having executive responsibility for law enforcement. In England the Attorney General is head of the Bar Association.


Esquire is a title occasionally used by attorneys. When used, it follows the attorney’s full name, and is most often an abbreviation, Esq. It is an honorary title that has little meaning in the U.S. today and is even somewhat controversial. The term Esquire has English roots, where it was considered an honorary title and originally referred only to males. It is now used as a professional title, similar to the use of Dr. or Ph.D.

The occupation of an attorney

Once accepted to practice by the highest court of a state (a function sometimes managed by the state's bar association), an American attorney may file legal pleadings and argue cases in any court of that state (federal courts, generally need a separate admission), offer legal counsel to clients, and draft significant legal documents such as wills, trusts, deeds, and contracts.

Attorney role include interviewing a client to recognize the legal problem, analyzing the question, investigating appropriate law, devising legal solutions to problems, and executing such solutions during specific tasks such as drafting a contract or filing a motion with a court.

In some states, real estate closings may be executed only by attorneys, even though the attorney's role in a closing may introduce principally notarization of documents and disbursement of settlement funds during an escrow account.


Many American attorneys bound their practices to specialized fields of law. Frequently dichotomies are drawn between distinct types of attorneys, but these are neither fixed nor formal lines. Examples include:
  • Plaintiff v. Defense Attorneys (some attorneys do both plaintiff and defense work; others only handle certain types of cases, like personal damage, business, etc.)
  • Transactional (or "office practice") attorneys (who negotiate and draft documents and advise clients, rarely going to court) v. litigators (who advise clients in the context of legal arguments both in and out of court, including lawsuits, arbitrations and negotiated settlements)
  • Trial attorneys (who argue the facts) v. appellate attorneys (who argue the law)
  • Outside counsel (law firms) v. in-house counsel (corporate legal department)
Despite these concepts, most states prohibit or discourage claims of specialization in particular areas of law unless the attorney has been certified by his or her state bar or state board of legal specialization. Some states permit indirect indications of specialization but need that the lawyer state that he or she is not certified by a state board of legal specialization in the advertised practice area. Patent attorneys are allowed to announce their specialization in all jurisdictions, since registration for patent law is administered by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), which imposes strict conditions for candidates to become registered as patent attorneys or patent agents, instead of a state-level body.

About half of American attorneys work alone or in small firms. There are also many mid size firms, with anywhere from 50 to 200 attorneys, and since the 1970s, some law firms have combined to form giant "mega firms" with 1,000 attorneys or more.

Education and training

Approximately all U.S. jurisdictions need successful completion of a bar exam to be licensed as an attorney. But a few of those states which need a bar exam also need the applicant to have taken a degree in professional law from an accredited law school. Most require it to be an American professional doctorate in law. Some states admit foreign law degrees. In addition to this formal education, attorneys in most jurisdictions must complete regular Continuing Legal Education (CLE) requirements.

The program was established by Admission to Practice Rule 6 and is managed by the WSBA at the direction of the Supreme Court. The Law Clerk Committee administers the program. The applicant must be of good moral character; have a bachelor's degree from a college or university based on a four-year curriculum; obtain full-time employment in Washington State with a lawyer, or a judge of general or appellate jurisdiction, who will be the primary tutor, and complete the application process. After successful completion of the Rule Six Law Clerk program, a law clerk may take the Washington State Bar Exam and, upon passing, will be admitted as an attorney into the Washington State Bar Association.

The degree gained by potential attorneys in the United States is usually a Juris Doctor (J.D.), or Doctor of Jurisprudence. Traditionally, law was an undergraduate subject in the United States, as it still is in most other Anglophone countries, for which the Bachelor of Laws (LL.B.) or other undergraduate degree was awarded. This undergraduate degree was followed by the LL.M. or Master of Laws and, where the LL.B. is still awarded, the highest degree is often still the LL.D. or Doctor of Laws. In the United States, however, the LL.B. was elevated to the graduate school curriculum starting in 1896 (Harvard), as a second Bachelor's degree; and then substituted by the professional doctorate in law - the J.D. or D.Jur. (When the degree is conferred in English) starting in 1902 (University of Chicago). By the end of the twentieth century, all ABA-accredited American law schools had substituted the LL.B. with the J.D./D.Jur.

Law students in court

Some courts permit law students to act as "certified student attorneys" after the satisfactory completion of their first year of law school and the completion of particular second- and third-year courses with themes such as evidence. Many states allow students to argue in front of a court as a certified legal intern (CLI), provided they meet certain prerequisites, such as having completed at least half of their legal education, having taken or be taking the law school's ethics class, and being under the supervision of a qualified and licensed attorney.

Unlicensed practice of law

Some states offer criminal penalties for: falsely holding oneself out to the public as a lawyer, and the unauthorized exercise of law by a non-lawyer.

A person who is not admitted to a state bar, but has a J.D. degree, is not a lawyer, and cannot legally engage in the exercise of law. In some states, even the practice of law by an "out-of-state" lawyer is considered the unauthorized practice of law within that state. Exceptions are sometimes made when the out-of-state lawyer is allowed provisionally to practice within the state pro hac vice or in some cases as in-house counsel for corporations.

In addition, a few areas of law, such as patent law, are mandated by the U.S. Constitution to be exactingly under federal jurisdiction. In this case, state courts and bar associations are not permitted to limit the practice of that field of law, and a patent attorney may freely advise clients as to patent matters anywhere in the jurisdiction of the United States with impunity, without regard to state court or bar association rules. Also, previous to November 15, 1938, individuals could become registered as “patent attorneys” with the PTO without ever passing a state bar exam or going to law school. That status was grandfather for patent attorneys registered prior to that date. This represents a holdover to the traditional meaning of the word “attorney” as “agent” or “attorney-in-fact”. Today, a non-lawyer can take and pass the patent bar, but he or she would be considered a patent agent.

In some jurisdictions, the meaning of the practice of law is pretty strict; persons have been successfully prosecuted for publishing do-it-yourself will forms and for representing special education children in federal proceedings as particularly permitted by federal law.
Contradictorily, some jurisdictions will permit a non-attorney to sit as a judge, generally in lower courts or in hearings by governmental agencies, although a non-attorney may not practice before these same courts. Likewise, in a jurisdiction where a judge is designated by the people, the judge often requires to be accredited to practice law or qualified in any particular way. In the same way, the U.S. Constitution does not offer any such requirement for a U.S. Supreme Court justice or other federal judge, even though no non-lawyer has ever been selected as a federal judge.

American attorneys' attire

American attorneys are not obligatory to wear wigs, robes or any other elements of court dress when they appear in court. They are waited to wear contemporary business suits.

The one big exception is the United States Solicitor General, who traditionally argues before the U.S. Supreme Court in 19th-century attire, including a "morning coat" with tails.