Lawyers vs attorneys - is there a distinction?

In the legal universe, various terms describe legal practitioners, such as lawyers, attorneys, solicitors, barristers, and even advocates. But the distinction between lawyers and attorneys appears to be the greyest area. And just to complicate matters, the usage of these terms can also differ depending on the country you’re from.

Let’s start with North America.

What is a lawyer?

In North America, a lawyer is essentially the umbrella term to describe a fully trained and licensed legal professional who is qualified to advise, as well as represent clients, on legal matters. 


What is an attorney?

An attorney is a “lawyer” who has been admitted to the bar association and has the legal authority to advise clients on legal matters and represent them in court. The term “attorney” is primarily used in the United States and Canada. It’s not commonly used outside of North America.

So, what’s the difference between lawyers vs attorneys?

From the above definitions of both lawyers and attorneys, it’s clear that the difference is attorneys can also represent clients in court, while lawyers can’t.

How the usage of the terms lawyers vs attorneys differs outside of North America.

barrister image

Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom

Lawyers are also known as “solicitors” and can advise clients on legal matters, including drafting legal documents, but they can also represent clients in lower courts and tribunals (such as VCAT for residential disputes in the state of Victoria, Australia).

The term “attorney” is not commonly used, but there is another type of lawyer called “barrister”. Barristers are basically hired guns to provide oral advocacy in higher courts (such as the Supreme Court) and are usually engaged directly by the legal teams representing the clients in court.

South Africa

In South Africa, lawyers and attorneys are one and the same. They do, however, have another type of lawyer called “advocates”, who are equivalent to barristers in Australia & UK or trial attorneys in North America.

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