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What Is the Difference Between Lawyer and Attorney?

Published on Aug 28, 2023 by Thomas Law Offices.

What Is the Difference Between Lawyer and Attorney
Most of us have heard the terms “attorney” and “lawyer” used interchangeably as if they mean the same thing. And, while there used to be a marked difference between the two words, that’s not actually the case here in Chicago or anywhere else in Illinois anymore.

Below, we’ll highlight the historical difference between the use of the two terms before wrapping up this article by describing what type of knowledge, skillset, or expertise you can expect the Chicago legal professional who handles your personal injury case to have, whether they refer to themselves as a lawyer or attorney.

What the Word Attorney Used To Mean

The word attorney was used to refer to someone who’d both graduated law school and passed the state bar exam in the jurisdiction where they wished to practice in or serve. In that case, that person’s law school graduation and subsequent passing of the bar ensured that individual had adequate training and had demonstrated mastery of state and federal laws, how to best interpret them, and how to appropriately document interactions with clients. This demonstrated that a person had the knowledge needed to be deemed an attorney and allowed them to serve as a legal representative for clients in court.

How the Term Lawyer Was Once Used

The word lawyer was previously used to refer to someone who had completed law school but hadn’t yet sat for and passed a state bar exam. Lawyers were historically authorized to provide legal advice but weren’t able to represent clients in a courtroom since they weren’t yet admitted to the bar.

Lawyers would often spend their time between when they graduated law school and passed the bar working under an attorney until they eventually took their exam. And ultimately, many individuals who graduated law school but did not sit for or pass the bar exam would decide to ultimately not become attorneys but instead obtain employment with a government agency or in consulting instead.

What Is the Typical Process for Becoming an Attorney or Lawyer in Illinois?

As we mentioned earlier, a lot has changed over the past few decades that has made it where the words lawyer and attorney are synonymous with one another (in other words, they mean the same thing). Thus, one of the basic requirements someone has to meet to become either one of these legal professionals includes attending an American Bar Association (ABA) approved law school and graduating with a Juris Doctor (JD) degree. Another is passing the bar exam in Illinois -OR- having successfully passed the bar in a state Illinois has a reciprocity agreement with, which, according to the Illinois State Bar Association in 2020, included:

  • Vermont
  • Tennessee
  • Oregon
  • Ohio
  • New York
  • New Jersey
  • New Hampshire
  • Massachusetts
  • Maryland
  • Kentucky
  • Connecticut
  • The District of Columbia

There are specific requirements in terms of how long an attorney must have practiced in a previous jurisdiction to be eligible to request for the reciprocity agreement to be honored with Illinois. This generally amounts to three of the previous five years, per Illinois Supreme Court Rule 705, but there are exceptions to this rule.

Additionally, there are options whereby an attorney can petition to serve as legal counsel in a state other than the one they’re licensed in. The Attorney Registration & Disciplinary Commission (ARDC) of the Supreme Court of Illinois outlines the pro hac vice rule, otherwise known as Illinois Supreme Court Rule 707, which spells out how out-of-state attorneys can petition our state’s highest court for permission to provide legal services in proceedings on a limited basis to residents in Chicago and elsewhere within its jurisdiction.

Additionally, the Illinois Board of Admission to the Bar outlines Illinois Supreme Court Rule 716 (Limited Admission of House Counsel). This rule spells out the requirements someone licensed to practice law in another jurisdiction, whether another U.S. or foreign one, must meet to serve as in-house counsel for a corporation, partnership, or other legal entity in Illinois under specific circumstances without having to submit to the full bar admission process.

Steps Illinois Lawyers and Attorneys Must Take To Continue Practicing in Their Profession

A law school graduate’s need to prove oneself worthy of the lawyer or attorney designation doesn’t end once they pass the Illinois bar exam. Instead, it’s something they must demonstrate that they’re worthy of throughout their career. Let us explain.

According to the Illinois State Bar Association, lawyers must meet annual registration requirements, which include:

  • Paying bar association membership dues
  • Undertaking continuing legal education coursework
  • Demonstrating mastery of ethical rules surrounding the protection of clients and their property and the prohibition of conflicts of interest

The bar association regularly performs background checks on its members. Any adverse information that arises from these checks may impact an attorney’s ability to continue practicing law in the state. So too may any complaint filed with the ARDC described above, especially if it results in the board taking temporary or permanent disciplinary action against a licensed lawyer.

Other Names These Legal Professionals Are Known By

Lawyers and attorneys aren’t the only words used to describe who provides professional legal services to a corporation or represents clients. Other common terms used for individuals in this role include esquire, counselor, and advocate.

Also, terms used to refer to attorneys may vary depending on the area of law they practice or their role. For example, when it comes to criminal law, prosecutors (who are also lawyers) may be referred to as state attorneys, district attorneys, or U.S. Attorneys. Judges are also attorneys, but depending on the court system and field of law they’re serving within, they may be referred to as a magistrate, judge, trustee, justice, or something else. In family law matters, attorneys may be appointed as guardians ad litem to advocate on behalf of children’s best interests.

Since we handle a lot of personal injury cases here at Thomas Law Offices, we feel it’s also important to highlight how attorneys and lawyers can also be mediators. We mention this because in some cases like these, there may be forced arbitration agreements in place requiring parties to try and reach an amicable agreement outside of court with an arbiter’s assistance. Other situations may call for a mediator to help parties with disparate interests reach a mutually agreeable solution.

Our Thomas Law Offices legal team in Chicago, which includes many attorneys or lawyers, would be happy to answer any questions you might have about our credentials to ensure you feel comfortable entrusting your personal injury case to our competent team. Call or write us an email to get your free initial consultation scheduled so we can discuss what legal options you have available to you.

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Meet Our Founder

Tad Thomas - Trial Lawyer

Tad Thomas

Managing Partner

Tad Thomas has dedicated his practice to representing plaintiffs in various types of civil litigation, including personal injury, business litigation, class actions, and multi-district litigation.

After graduating with his law degree in 2000 from Salmon P. Chase College of Law at Northern Kentucky University, Mr. Thomas immediately opened his own private practice and began representing injury victims.

In 2011, Thomas Law Offices was established in Louisville, Kentucky. Over the past decade, Mr. Thomas has expanded his firm and now has offices in three additional locations: Cincinnati, Ohio, Columbia, Missouri, and Chicago, Illinois. He is also a frequent lecturer on topics like trial skills and ethics and technology.

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Tad Thomas on The National Crime Victim Bar Association
National Civil Justice Institute - Trustee
Tad Thomas on Lawyer Minds
Tad Thomas on American Association for Justice
Southern Trial Lawyers Association
Illinois Trial Lawyers Association
Ohio Association for Justice
Kentucky Justice Association
Fellows of the Litigation Counsel of America
Martindale Hubbell Preeminent
2021 Public Justice Member
AAJ Masters of Trial Law: Champion