Lawyer vs Attorney: Is There A Difference?

lawyer vs attorney is there a difference

Choosing which term to use, lawyer vs attorney? They are frequently used interchangeably in advertisements, websites, and brochures. In truth, they are not exactly the same thing. From the logical point of view, all attorneys are lawyers, but not all lawyers are attorneys. 

Here’s why… 

Attorneys Have Passed The Bar Exam 

Attorney is actually short for attorney-at-law, a distinction that requires passing the state bar exam. In addition to finishing and graduating from an accredited law school, attorneys-at-law has passed the bar exam in their respective state.  

Here in California, attorneys have to pass several, proverbial, bars: 

  • They’ve graduated from an accredited college or university 
  • They subsequently attended and graduated from an accredited law school** (not mandatory in CA, but more on that below) 
  • They’ve studied extensively using state bar preparation materials and/or course work 

The Baby Bar 

In their first year of law, law students take an exam called “The Baby Bar.” This exam consists of four one-hour essay questions and 100 multiple-choice questions. It’s a good way to establish how serious the “real” bar will be and can help some students determine that the attorney path may not be for them after all. 

Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination 

After the first year of law school, but before they become licensed attorneys, law students must also pass a two-hour multiple-choice test called the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE).   

Once aspiring attorneys-at-law pass the Baby Bar, graduate from law school, and feel up to the challenge, they sign up and pay to take the state bar exam.  

California State Bar Exam 

The California State Bar Exam’s reputation as a grueling examination is widely respected, and it often requires multiple attempts. In fact, only about 45% of all testers pass the California Bar Exam the first time. You can take it as many times as you want. I am proud to say that I passed the California bar exam after my first attempt, and have been practicing as a family law attorney ever since.  

The test has three parts: 

  1. Five one-hour essay questions 
  2. One 90-minute performance test (standard style questions/answers) 
  3. The Multistate Bar Exam (MBE) has 200 multiple choice questions 

The key content areas covered on the exam include: 

  • Conflict of laws 
  • Real property 
  • Family law 
  • Contractors 
  • Business associations (Partnerships, limited liability companies, and corporations) 
  • Criminal law and procedure 
  • Torts 
  • Uniform Commercial Code, Article 9 (Secured Transactions) 
  • Evidence 
  • Trusts and estates 

After passing, lawyers register for their license to practice as an attorney-at-law in the state of California.  

**Note: California is one of four states that allows anyone to take the bar, regardless of whether they attended law school or college. That said, in the history of the CA bar, less than 20 people (out of more than 100,000 test-takers) have ever done so. The caveat is that you must have worked as an apprentice and “read the law” under the guidance of a judge or licensed attorney for at least four years.  

Lawyers: Education Without The Bar 

To call yourself a lawyer, you must have studied and graduated from a law school, but there is no need to pass the bar. Lawyers can work as professional law advisers, but they cannot legally represent someone in court, nor can they practice in a prosecutor’s office.  

Lawyers often prefer to work behind the scenes, offering legal information, advice, or guidance around policies or strategies, and are active members of legal teams. 

What Does Lawyer vs Attorney Mean For Clients? 

Because the general public doesn’t have a clear understanding of the difference between lawyer vs attorney, many attorneys refer to themselves as lawyers because it is the more widely understood term and is used more often in the pop culture vernacular.  

If you simply want legal advice, a lawyer with solid credentials and a diploma from a reputable law program should be able to do the job. Their services may be more competitively priced, but not always. Ultimately, however, lawyers have not passed the bar exam, and there is something to be said about the extra “stamp of approval” and the level of deep legal expertise required to pass the exam.  

If you are looking for a legal professional who knows the law and can represent you in court if need be, you should always seek the help of an attorney. Their website will typically note them as attorneys, even if some of the language and terminology on the site refers to them as lawyers. Attorneys should always be able to provide evidence of their licensure upon request. 

Are you interested in hiring an attorney to support you in your upcoming divorce, family mediation, or child custody case? Schedule an appointment at The Law Offices of Gerard Falzone. You’ll benefit from a licensed attorney-at-law who approaches family law with the groundedness and humility of a lawyer.