What is a Lawyer, Anyway?

Understanding legal lingo

By Katrina Styx | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on May 9, 2023 Featuring practical insights from contributing attorney Thomas F. Nelson

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In the United States, laws are almost impossible to avoid.

Laws establish civil rights, direct government powers, govern how businesses and markets operate, protect the public from undue harm, promote health and welfare, and more. Laws can be massive and overarching or narrowly specific. But the thing they tend to have in common is that they are often complicated and difficult for the average person to thoroughly understand.

That’s where lawyers come in.

Lawyers are people who have completed formal legal training and have become licensed to practice, meaning their state has confirmed that they meet certain standards of legal knowledge and professional character.

With that license, a lawyer puts their knowledge into practice, helping others interpret and apply the law in all manner of situations, and representing people and entities in legal proceedings.

What Is a Lawyer?

“There are an infinite number of ways to describe what it is that lawyers do,” says Thomas F. Nelson, president of the Minnesota Bar Association.

Ultimately, lawyers work on behalf of others. Some lawyers represent plaintiffs (those who bring a grievance to the court) while others represent defendants (those who are being accused by a plaintiff).

“Those defendants might be corporations, or they might be individuals, or they might be other entities,” Nelson says.

The types of legal cases a lawyer might handle can be divided into civil and criminal. “Civil usually means how to handle money and money-related matters or civil rights, for example, and sometimes in injunctive or equitable relief,” Nelson explains. “Criminal usually means representing either a criminal defendant or the prosecution.”

Public Lawyers

There are different types of public lawyers:

  • A public defender is paid by the government to provide legal defense to anyone charged with a crime who does not already have a private defense attorney
  • A prosecutor represents the government in bringing charges against alleged criminals and upholding the rule of law
  • Another type of public lawyer represents government entities in any number of legal matters

“[The roles of public defender and prosecutor are both] essential in the criminal justice system to see that justice is done, that prosecutions are fair, that defendants are represented, and that judges and juries have a chance to reach a just verdict or resolution,” Nelson says.

Private Lawyers

A private law firm is an independent business. From the local to the global, and from highly specialized to general practices, the size, expertise, and legal services offered by law firms vary widely. Any client can hire a private lawyer or firm to represent them in any legal matter, whether civil or criminal. Private lawyers can choose which cases they will or will not take.

Corporate Lawyers

Lawyers can also work for corporations. “Those lawyers are employees or officers working inside of public or private corporations or other entities,” Nelson says, “and their job is to manage and lead the corporation in terms of legal risks and business opportunities.”

It’s not just a business or a trade or a skill, it’s a profession. There are obligations in terms of public service, and you take an oath as a lawyer to uphold and advance justice. You have an obligation as a lawyer to follow the rules, and there are very detailed ethical rules that govern the profession. It’s a special profession; it’s a privilege to be a lawyer.

Thomas F. Nelson

What Does a Lawyer Do?

When people think of lawyers, often the first thing that comes to mind is a courtroom. Many lawyers (although not all) do end up arguing in court. But depending on their practice area, their day-to-day work may include much more than speaking to a judge or jury.

For example, “If you’re a private law firm trial lawyer, then you’re spending a lot of time on courtroom matters, on either hearings or trials,” Nelson says. “You’re working with a lot of people on research and briefing, and you’re working with a lot of people on what’s called discovery, which is finding out the information that the other side has.”

No matter what type of work a lawyer is doing, they are bound to a certain standard. According to the  American Bar Association, a lawyer’s basic responsibilities are to uphold the law and protect their client’s rights. Lawyers are also guided by a set of rules for professional conduct.

“It’s not just a business or a trade or a skill, it’s a profession,” Nelson says. “There are obligations in terms of public service, and you take an oath as a lawyer to uphold and advance justice. You have an obligation as a lawyer to follow the rules, and there are very detailed ethical rules that govern the profession. It’s a special profession; it’s a privilege to be a lawyer.”

What’s the Difference Between a Lawyer and an Attorney?

When searching for help with your legal problem, you will likely notice that there are multiple terms to refer to lawyers. In the United States, there is little to no distinction between the terms “attorney” (or “attorney-at-law”) and “lawyer.” Many use the terms interchangeably, including the ABA. A lawyer may also be called legal counsel or counselor.

Another distinction you may see when searching for a lawyer is the suffix attached to a name: “J.D.” or “Esq.” J.D. stands for juris doctorate and indicates that a person has obtained a law degree. “Esq.” stands for “Esquire” and indicates that a person is licensed by their state bar association to practice law.

However, there are no laws requiring the use of suffixes. Some licensed attorneys will use “J.D.” or no suffix at all; others will use “Esq.” on formal communications or legal documents, but not in common correspondence.

In short, these terms are not always the best way to determine if a lawyer is qualified. To find out if an individual is licensed to practice in your state, you can consult with your state bar association, either by phone or by searching their online directory.

For more information, use the Super Lawyers directory to reach out to a reputable attorney for legal advice in the area appropriate to your issue, be it family law, personal injury, estate planning, health care, real estate, or otherwise. Depending on the legal issue, many attorneys offer free consultations.

For more information on this area of law, see our general litigation overview.

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