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What is the Difference Between a Lawyer and an Attorney?

The terms “lawyer” and “attorney” are often used interchangeably, leading to confusion about their precise meanings and qualifications. However, there is a difference between one who is merely a lawyer and one who has attained the ranking of an attorney: education vs. licensure.

Educated to be a Lawyer, but Licensed to Serve as an Attorney

A license to practice law can be obtained only after successful completion of the bar exam. While both lawyers and attorneys have graduated from law school, lawyers are not licensed to give advice or represent clients in court proceedings. Only licensed attorneys, according to the Illinois Attorney Act, may practice law or be compensated for legal services in Illinois.

In fact, an “attorney”, by definition, is a lawyer who has successfully passed the bar exam in their respective jurisdiction. The bar exam, administered by the state’s licensing body (governed by the Illinois Supreme Court in Illinois) serves as a rigorous assessment of an individual’s knowledge of state-specific laws and general legal principles. The bar exam spans multiple days and demands extensive preparation. In Illinois, only 7 out of 10 lawyers who attempt the bar exam will pass the test and be admitted.

How Does Someone Become a Lawyer, or Possibly an Attorney?

Step 1: Attending Law School – the Degree of “Juris Doctor”

The suffix, “J.D.”, stands for Juris Doctor, which is the professional degree awarded upon completion of law school. It is the primary academic qualification for practicing law in the United States and many other countries. The Juris Doctor degree signifies that the individual has successfully completed the required coursework and has earned a law degree. Aspiring lawyers typically pursue a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree after completing their undergraduate education.

Law school programs take three years of full-time study to complete. During this time, students delve into various areas of law, legal theory, and practical skills training to prepare them for a career in law.

Law school provides students with a foundation in the law. At an accredited law school, individuals study federal and state laws, analyze past cases (“legal precedent”), and develop critical thinking skills essential for legal practice. The coursework in law school equips students with a comprehensive understanding of legal principles and precedents, laying the groundwork for their future careers in the legal field. Law school courses typically encompass:

  • Civil Procedure
  • Constitutional Law
  • Contracts
  • Criminal Law
  • Property Law
  • Torts
  • Legal Research and Writing
  • Evidence
  • Business Associations
  • Administrative Law
  • Family Law
  • Tax Law
  • International Law
  • Environmental Law
  • Intellectual Property Law

Having a J.D. from an accredited law school entitles that person to apply for and take any state’s bar exam, but it does not allow them to practice law. They must first pass the bar exam and be admitted to practice. Until such time, they are not members of the bar, and they are not authorized to give legal advice or be compensated for so doing.

Step 2: Studying for and Passing the Bar Exam

Upon graduation from law school, lawyers embark on the path to licensure by undertaking the formidable challenge of the bar exam. Success in this examination signifies not only a mastery of legal knowledge but also a commitment to upholding the standards of the legal profession. In Illinois, candidates must meet certain pre-requisites before sitting for the bar exam. The Illinois bar exam evaluates candidates on a wide range of legal topics, including contracts, torts, criminal law, civil procedure, and evidence, among others.

The significance of passing the bar exam cannot be overstated. The preparation for the bar exam is intensive and time-consuming, often requiring months of dedicated study and review. The reward of licensure allows “lawyers” to finally serve as “attorneys”, to advocate for clients’ rights, uphold the principles of justice, and contribute to the administration of law in society.

Becoming an attorney is more than just mastering the law; it’s about upholding ethical standards and demonstrating professional responsibility. Before earning a license to practice law, aspiring lawyers must pass a rigorous ethics examination, focused on the rules of professional conduct.

Once admitted to the bar in Illinois, Illinois, attorneys are bound by the Illinois Rules of Professional Conduct, which outline ethical obligations and behaviors in various aspects of legal practice. These rules cover crucial areas such as client confidentiality, fee arrangements, conflicts of interest, and overall standards of professional behavior. Adherence to these rules is paramount, as violations can lead to disciplinary measures, including the revocation of one’s law license.

Step 4: Character & Fitness Examination

Following success in the bar exam and the professional responsibility test, prospective attorneys face another hurdle: the character and fitness examination. This evaluation scrutinizes an individual’s background, including past employment, education, residences, criminal history, and previous bar admissions. Its aim is to ensure that candidates possess the integrity, honesty, and moral character necessary to uphold the standards of the legal profession and serve as responsible members of the community.

Once candidates pass the character and fitness examination, they earn admission to the state bar and receive their license to practice law. This pivotal moment marks the official entry into the legal profession, granting attorneys the authority to represent clients in court proceedings and provide legal advice to the public. It’s the culmination of years of education, training, and preparation, providing attorneys with the credentials and authority to embark on their legal careers confidently.

The educational journey doesn’t end with licensure. Each year, attorneys must engage in ongoing education and professional development to maintain their license to practice law. Continuing Legal Education (CLE) Courses are mandatory in Illinois, with attorneys typically required to complete 30 hours of CLE every two years. Six of these hours focuses on the topic of professional responsibility and adherence to the rules of professional conduct.

CLE courses serve as a means for attorneys to deepen their understanding of legal principles, stay abreast of changes in laws and regulations, and refine their skills in specialized areas of practice. By participating in continuous learning, attorneys demonstrate their commitment to excellence and their dedication to providing high-quality legal services to their clients. Moreover, CLE requirements ensure that attorneys remain competent and effective advocates in an ever-evolving legal landscape.

While the most common degree awarded to graduates of law school is the Juris Doctor (J.D.), some legal professionals opt to pursue specialized education through a Master of Laws (LL.M.) degree, which offers advanced training in specific areas of law. The LL.M. program provides an opportunity for deeper exploration of specialized fields, such as international law, tax law, environmental law, or intellectual property law, among others. Some lawyers who hold an LL.M. degree serve as law school professors.

Different Areas of the Law

While law school provides a comprehensive foundation in various areas of law, professionals in the field often choose to narrow their professional focus to better serve their clients’ needs, such as:

  • Real Estate Law: Lawyers specializing in real estate law handle legal issues related to property ownership, transactions, leases, zoning regulations, and property development.
  • Family Law: Family law attorneys assist clients with matters such as divorce, child custody, adoption, paternity, domestic violence, and prenuptial agreements.
  • Criminal Law: Criminal defense attorneys defend individuals accused of committing crimes and represent them in court proceedings, working to protect their legal rights and achieve the best possible outcome for their clients.
  • Intellectual Property Law: Attorneys in this field focus on protecting intellectual property rights, including patents, trademarks, copyrights, and trade secrets, as well as handling disputes related to intellectual property infringement.
  • General Law: Some lawyers may practice general law, offering a wide range of legal services to clients across various areas of the law, including contract disputes, civil litigation, and estate planning.
  • Corporate and Business Law: Corporate lawyers provide legal advice and representation to businesses on matters such as formation, mergers and acquisitions, corporate governance, contracts, and regulatory compliance.
  • Tax Law: Tax attorneys specialize in matters related to taxation, including tax planning, compliance, audits, and resolving tax disputes with government authorities.
  • Bankruptcy Law: Bankruptcy attorneys help individuals and businesses navigate the process of filing for bankruptcy, managing debt, and obtaining debt relief through bankruptcy proceedings.
  • Civil Rights Law: Civil rights lawyers advocate for individuals whose civil rights have been violated, addressing issues such as discrimination, police misconduct, voting rights, and access to education and healthcare.
  • Environmental Law: Attorneys practicing environmental law focus on legal issues related to environmental protection, conservation, pollution control, land use planning, and compliance with environmental regulations.
  • Immigration Law: Immigration attorneys assist individuals and families with matters such as visas, green cards, citizenship applications, deportation defense, asylum, and refugee status.
  • Labor and Employment Law: Lawyers in this field handle legal issues arising in the workplace, including employment discrimination, wrongful termination, wage and hour disputes, workplace safety, and collective bargaining.
  • Personal Injury Law: Personal injury attorneys represent individuals who have been injured due to the negligence or misconduct of others, seeking compensation for medical expenses, lost wages, pain and suffering, and other damages.

While law school provides a broad overview of these areas of law, lawyers and attorneys may undergo additional training and education to gain expertise in their chosen field. In fact, attorneys often limit their practice to a single area of the law, allowing them to provide legal advice and representation tailored to the specific needs of clients within that field.

The legal profession offers many career paths and job titles for both lawyers and attorneys, each influenced by factors such as location, experience, and professional goals. Whether pursuing a traditional legal role or exploring alternative career options, lawyers and attorneys across the legal spectrum play a vital role in upholding the rule of law and ensuring access to justice in society.

Careers for Lawyers

Lawyers who have not pursued or attained licensure through the bar exam may still play important roles in the legal field. While they cannot appear in court as advocates for clients, they may perform other non-litigation-related tasks with employment opportunities in corporate law departments, government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and academia, where their legal expertise can be applied outside the courtroom.

  • Consultants: Lawyers may work as legal consultants, providing expert advice and guidance on legal matters to individuals, businesses, or organizations. Legal consultants often offer specialized expertise in specific areas of law and may work independently or as part of consulting firms.
  • Regulators: Lawyers knowledgeable in regulatory law focus on ensuring compliance with laws and regulations governing specific industries or sectors. They may work for government agencies, regulatory bodies, or corporations to navigate complex regulatory frameworks and ensure adherence to legal requirements.
  • Corporations: Lawyers employed by corporations serve as in-house legal advisors, providing guidance on legal issues affecting the company’s operations, transactions, contracts, and compliance with regulatory requirements. Corporate counsel plays a key role in risk management and strategic decision-making within the organization.
  • Government: Lawyers may pursue careers in government agencies at the local, state, or federal level, representing government entities in legal matters, prosecuting criminal cases, or providing legal advice and counsel to government officials and agencies.
  • Nonprofit: Lawyers may work for nonprofit organizations, providing legal assistance on issues related to nonprofit governance, tax-exempt status, fundraising, charitable activities, and compliance with regulatory requirements specific to nonprofits.
  • Educators: Some lawyers choose to pursue careers in education, teaching law courses at law schools, colleges, or universities. Legal educators play a vital role in training the next generation of legal professionals and may also engage in research and scholarship within their areas of expertise.

Careers for Attorneys

Litigation Attorney: Attorneys specializing in litigation represent clients in civil or criminal court proceedings, advocating for their interests during trials, hearings, and other legal proceedings. Litigation attorneys may work in law firms, government agencies, or as solo practitioners.

  • Transactional Attorney: Transactional attorneys focus on drafting and negotiating contracts, agreements, and other legal documents for business transactions, real estate transactions, mergers and acquisitions, and other non-litigation matters. They play a critical role in facilitating business deals and ensuring legal compliance.
  • Legal Aid Attorney: Attorneys working for legal aid organizations provide free or low-cost legal assistance to individuals with limited means, helping them access justice in matters such as housing, family law, immigration, and consumer rights. Legal aid attorneys often work in underserved communities and advocate for social justice and equality.
  • Environmental Attorney: Attorneys specializing in environmental law focus on legal issues related to environmental protection, conservation, and sustainability. They may represent clients in environmental litigation, regulatory compliance, land use planning, and advocacy for environmental causes.
  • Intellectual Property Attorney: Attorneys practicing intellectual property law specialize in protecting and enforcing intellectual property rights, including patents, trademarks, copyrights, and trade secrets. They advise clients on intellectual property strategies, licensing agreements, and enforcement actions.
  • Immigration Attorney: Immigration attorneys assist individuals and families with immigration matters, including visas, green cards, citizenship applications, deportation defense, and asylum claims. They navigate complex immigration laws and policies to help clients achieve their immigration goals.
  • Personal Injury Attorney: A personal injury attorney represents individuals who have been injured due to negligence or wrongdoing. They advocate for their clients in court, negotiate settlements, and seek compensation for medical expenses, lost wages, and pain and suffering resulting from accidents or injuries caused by others.

Illinois Law Schools

The journey to becoming a lawyer begins with entering law school. Illinois has several esteemed law schools offering diverse programs and opportunities for aspiring lawyers:

Each of these law schools offers a unique approach to legal education and provides students with the tools and resources they need to succeed in the legal profession.

Injured in an accident in Illinois? If you believe you have a personal injury case, you don’t have to face your legal challenges alone. Let the experienced Illinois personal injury lawyers at John J. Malm & Associates Personal Injury Lawyers help you. Contact our firm to receive a free consultation with one of our knowledgeable attorneys. There is never an obligation to speak with us. If you decide to retain us, there will be no fee charged unless and until we collect for you.

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