What is the Difference Between an Attorney a Paralegal and a Lawyer?

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One common area of confusion for those outside the legal profession is the difference between various job titles among legal professionals. After all, in many jurisdictions there are now paralegal firms that offer services that to some might seem similar to what an attorney can do. So what is the difference between an attorney and a paralegal, an attorney and a lawyer, and other legal professionals?

Attorney vs. Paralegal

The biggest distinctions between attorneys and paralegals are education and licensing. To be an attorney, one must attend and graduate from an American Bar Association (ABA) accredited law school (in most cases obtaining a juris doctorate degree); undergo a rigorous background screening by the state in which he or she intends to practice; and take and pass a grueling licensing test called the bar exam designed to determine if the attorney is minimally competent in the major areas of practice in that jurisdiction. Once all of these requirements are met, the individual is sworn in as an attorney and must pay annual fees to maintain a license, participate in ongoing legal education requirements, abide by very strict ethical standards, and in some states must perform a certain amount of charity work. An attorney can represent clients in legal proceedings, give legal advice, and independently perform any activity associated with the practice of law.

A paralegal, on the other hand, is not formalized in any way in most states. While some states have programs for certification of paralegals, even in these jurisdictions it is often not required to be certified in order to work as a paralegal. Some paralegals obtain college degrees in paralegal studies or criminal justice, but this is often not required. In many cases, to be a paralegal, one must merely be hired by an attorney and given the title. The paralegal, in turn, is able to research and draft most legal documents (though usually only under the supervision of an attorney), and often assists with the day-to-day operations of a law firm, like scheduling hearings, interacting with clients, and keeping case files and evidence in order. Paralegals cannot give legal advice or represent clients in legal proceedings, and cannot independently prepare legal documents that have not been approved by an attorney.

A recent trend has been the creation of “paralegal firms.” These organizations are run by paralegals and usually have no attorneys on staff or, in some jurisdictions, may have an attorney available to oversee things but who takes a very minimal role in the daily operations. Paralegal firms typically render certain legal services at a much lower price than actual law firms, but their services are usually limited to filling out preexisting forms with information provided by the client. The paralegals cannot legally give clients advice on law or legal procedures, prepare original documents, or represent the client in any way. For individuals who intend to represent themselves in court, but who are uncomfortable understanding and filling out the legal forms they are required to submit on their own, this may be a viable option. But, for most matters, if one needs legal assistance, an actual attorney or law firm is the better option.

Attorney vs Lawyer

Another common question is “what, if anything, is the difference between an attorney and a lawyer?” The difference is highly technical; so much so that for most conversations the two terms are used interchangeably. A lawyer is one who has studied the law, just as an historian is anyone who studies history or a geographer is one who studies geography. An attorney, on the other hand, is short for attorney-at-law, which is the legal term for one who has been licensed to practice law and represent clients. An attorney-at-law is different than an attorney-in-fact, which is a person who holds a power of attorney on behalf of another.

Confused yet? Don't worry, you are not alone. For that reason, the ABA and most state bars have passed ethical rules designed to eliminate the possibility of such confusion by members of the general public by eliminating these highly technical distinctions and making it against the law for those who are not licensed by the bar to practice law to call themselves either lawyers or attorneys. For that reason, you will often see those who attended law school but do not actively practice simply place a J.D. after their name to note their degree. Only those licensed to practice law can call themselves attorneys (and in most cases, lawyers) and add the “Esq.” or “esquire” title to their names. The esquire title relates back to the English system of nobility and refers to the minor gentry status attorneys held by virtue of their occupation.

For the same reason, because most attorneys/lawyers in the U.S. hold a professional degree called a juris doctorate (or J.D.) degree, but are not either medical doctors or holders of academic doctorates (like a PhD), they are also not allowed to refer to themselves as “Doctor.” While most college professors are called “Doctor” by their students in recognition of their advanced degrees, most law school professors are simply called “Professor.”

The system of degrees for lawyers is also somewhat unusual in the U.S. One usually first obtains a juris doctorate degree, which is a generalized degree in the study of law. If one chooses to obtain a degree related to a particular area of the law, they will usually take additional courses to obtain a masters of law degree (or LL M.). Rarer still are those who go even further and obtain an academic doctorate in a particular specialty field of law, called a Scientiae Juridicae Doctor (or J.S.D.).

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Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.

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