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Who is a Lawyer?

In the U.S., there are several titles that are used to describe lawyers.  First, let's take a look at the definition of lawyer.  According to Black’s Law Dictionary, a lawyer is one who is licensed to practice law.  Simple enough.  But various titles such as esquire, attorney, attorney-at-law, partner, counsel, associate, or law clerk are often used interchangeably to describe someone who, in essence, practices law – but what do these titles mean?

Word origin of commonly used titles

Before exploring the difference in titles, let’s look into the word origin of the two most commonly used titles – lawyer and attorney.  The etymology of lawyer dates back to the late 14th century meaning one versed in law.  There is even a biblical reference in the New Testament of the book of Luke defining a lawyer as an interpreter of the Mosaic Law.  On the other hand, the word attorney is an early 14th century Anglo-Latin word meaning one appointed.  The original spelling was the old French word “atorné” but the spelling we now know as attorney with two t’s was derived from a mistake during the 15th century from an attempt to give the word a Latin origin.

The difference in titles

Now with the word origin and history out of the way, let’s get down to what these titles mean.  Attorney is the general term used to describe any lawyer and is also the everyday abbreviation for attorney-at-law.  On the other hand, the popular designation esquire, often noted as Esq. after a person’s surname, is used as a sign of respect and is designated for a person permitted to practice law in the U.S.

Although these terms are used to describe a lawyer, the following titles are used for lawyers practicing law at an organization.

In a law firm setting, a partner is a highly ranked position indicating co-ownership of the partnership.  Typically, the partnership structure is divided into two tiers – the equity partnership and the non-equity partnership also known as a junior partner, a title reserved for newly elected partners.  The difference between the two is exactly what the name suggests.  The equity partner usually owns a small percentage of the business allowing he or she to take home a share of the firm’s profits whereas a non-equity partner only has a contract with the firm that allows the non-equity partner a “guaranteed employment” but without the benefits of receiving a share of the profits.

Another designation used to refer to lawyers is counsel.  This signifies the lawyer’s association or relationship with the firm or that the lawyer brings a specialty or experience useful to the firm.  Depending on the organization, counsel is the middle line between partner and associate.  Other interchangeable titles include “of counsel,” “general counsel,” or “special counsel”.

Another tier of the legal structure is an associate.  An associate is an employee of the firm who does not hold any ownership interest in the firm regardless of tenure.  The attorney may also be a junior or senior lawyer and can only move up the corporate ladder by becoming a partner or counsel.

When a student graduates law school and has not been officially sworn into the Bar (some positions may not require Bar passage), the designation used to describe such an individual is law clerk.  The significance here is that the law clerk performs relevant research for either another lawyer or judge and, among various other tasks, drafts legal documents.  Recent law graduates usually seek out these positions, particularly judicial clerkship positions (internships providing assistance to a judge) because it allows the newly minted graduate or a junior lawyer to gain valuable experience, as well as network in a particular field of their interest.

All in all, these terms are widely used in common law, but depending on location around the world, a few of the titles may have a different meaning.

This post has been brought to you by the Ms. JD Journalists. If you have suggestions for any topics that you think should be covered on Ms. JD, feel free to email your suggestions to contentdirector@ms-jd.org and the Ms. JD Journalists will get right on it.

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